Ethanol gets boost from new engine technology

Optimizing engine operation on ethanol has just been turbocharged with new technology recently unveiled by the Ricardo Company. Improved engine technology will allow vehicles to achieve better fuel efficiency when powered by ethanol, closing the gap between the renewable fuel and plain gasoline.

Ricardo, a leading provider of technology, product innovation, engineering solutions and strategic consulting to the world's automotive, transport and energy industries, recently revealed the development of this technology that optimizes ethanol-fuelled engines to a level of performance that exceeds gasoline engine efficiency and approaches levels previously reached only by diesel engines.

“We’ve always known we have a premium fuel with ethanol, now we have the technology available which will optimize ethanol’s best properties,” said Reid Jensen, president of the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council.

The technology, called Ethanol Boosted Direct Injection or EBDI, takes full advantage of ethanol’s best properties – higher octane and higher heat of vaporization – to create a truly renewable fuel scenario that is independent of the cost of oil.

With an engine optimized to run on ethanol, instead of on gasoline like today’s engines are, the price differential between ethanol and fossil fuels will be smaller, leading to increased usage of ethanol as it becomes economically advantageous to run on a cost per mile basis.

“Developing renewable energy applications that can lead to energy independence is a top priority at Ricardo,” said Ricardo Inc President Dean Harlow in the company release. “We’ve moved past theoretical discussion and are busy applying renewable energy technology to the real world. The EBDI engine project is a great example because it turns the gasoline-ethanol equation upside down. It has the performance of a diesel at the cost of a gasoline engine, and runs on ethanol, gasoline, or a blend of both.“

EBDI solves many of the challenges faced by flex-fuel engines because it is optimized for both alternative fuels and gasoline. Current flex-fuel engines pay a fuel economy penalty of about 30 percent compared to gasoline when operated on ethanol blends such as E85. The EBDI engine substantially improves ethanol’s efficiency, and performs at a level comparable to a diesel engine.

“In real-world terms, these efficiencies mean that EBDI can reduce the actual cost of transportation when compared to fossil fuels, and it does it with a renewable resource – ethanol,”  said Rod Beazley, director of the Ricardo Inc Gasoline Product Group. “The combination of technologies we’re applying to the EBDI engine make the most of ethanol’s advantages over other fuels, which include a higher octane rating and a higher heat of vaporization. Without getting too technical, this means we can use a high level of turbo charging to achieve the high cylinder pressures that ethanol enables. Add in some other advanced technologies such as direct injection, variable valve timing, optimized ignition and advanced exhaust gas recirculation, and we’re squeezing out more power than is possible with gasoline.”

The engine has been in development for about 14 months with the original concept generation about 18 months ago. What sets the engine apart from others in the marketplace is the controls strategy that optimizes the engine for efficiency and performance on a wide range of spark ignited fuels.

The prototype EBDI is a 3.2-liter V6 engine that ultimately could serve as a replacement for a large gasoline or turbo-diesel engine in a large SUV. The first firing of the engine & initial development is currently taking place and will be installed into a dual-wheel pick-up truck demonstration vehicle later this year. Beazley emphasized that the technology is very scalable. Applications could reach far beyond the automotive and light-truck industry.

“Imagine agricultural equipment that, in effect, burns what it harvests – corn or some other renewable substance. It could mean tremendous cost savings across many industries,” said Beazley.

According to Ricardo, there is no reason that the technology contained in the engine package could not be on a production track today, but that means three to five years depending on the individual company’s production timing. The project is a fully collaborative project with several key Tier 1 suppliers and there has been significant interest from the OEM community, said the company.

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