Initiative Readies Biofuels for Future High-Performance, Low-Carbon Engines

Research efforts to simultaneously transform both transportation fuels and vehicles to maximize performance and energy efficiency, while also minimizing environmental impact and accelerating widespread adoption of innovative combustion strategies, have reached a major milestone this month.

The Co-Optimization of Fuels & Engines (Co-Optima) initiative is a research and development (R&D) collaboration between DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), its nine national laboratories and industry stakeholders – including national agriculture groups – is a first-of-its-kind effort to combine previously independent areas of biofuels and engine combustion study with the goal of designing new fuels and engines that are co-optimized – designed in tandem to both maximize vehicle performance and reduce environmental impacts.

The research builds on a large body of work that has already been done on various fuel additives, such as ethanol, which is an inherently high-octane fuel additive that contains many of the benefits researchers are looking for, including commercial and economic viability.

Last week, Co-Optima completed a year-long assessment of an initial 470 blendstock compounds, and announced eight blendstocks that researchers believe are representative of those with “optimal” fuel properties that can maximize engine performance.

The eight blendstocks that made their way through the intense research gauntlet are a mixture of dimethyl and methyl furan, n-propanol, iso-propanol, diisobutylene, isobutanol, cylopentanone, a high aromatic bioreformate and ethanol.

These candidates will now undergo continued research that will refine their property measurements, while researchers simultaneously develop improved models for blending with conventional hydrocarbon blendstocks. The initiative will produce and/or procure additional amounts of the candidate blendstocks sufficient for testing and to validate engine and fuel economy performance. Researchers will then be able to characterize and compare the blendstocks’ benefits and identify challenges to their commercial introduction. The list of representative candidates may evolve as additional data becomes available.

The Co-Optima initiative has taken a three-pronged, integrated approach to identifying and developing:

1. Engines designed to run more efficiently on affordable, scalable and sustainable fuels;

2. Fuels designed to work in high-efficiency, low-emissions engines; and,

3. Marketplace strategies that can shape the success of new fuels and vehicle technologies with industry and consumers.

Those approaches aim to meet the initiative’s stated goal, “Better fuels and better engines…sooner,” and to introduce improved technologies into the market place by 2025.

In addition to choosing their eight candidate blendstocks, based on fuel properties and maximized engine performance, researchers have also been looking at how engine parameters affect efficiency. They want to know what combinations of these fuels will work with modern and future engine designs in a sustainable, affordable and scalable way. Furthermore, they are looking for which of those combinations will produce the greatest reduction in greenhouse gases (GHG).

The final co-optimized fuel-engine systems will reduce petroleum consumption and GHG emissions from the transportation sector, while stimulating the economy – that means jobs – and promoting U.S. technology leadership.

The Co-Optima initiative is supported by a variety of industry stakeholders including automakers, biofuel feedstock and producer groups, agribusiness partners, infrastructure providers and technical experts. 25x’25 has been working with many of these stakeholders to develop strategies to accelerate the transition of transportation fuels to higher octane/lower carbon blends for use in the U.S. light duty vehicle fleet. Increasing the development and use of biofuels, including conventional feedstocks like corn and second-generation feedstocks such as corn stover, will encourage additional growth in the production of cleaner-burning cars and light trucks on U.S. roads and highways. Advancements in biofuel production have helped to establish ethanol, both conventional and advanced forms, as an increasingly cost-effective, commercially viable pathway for increasing the octane of liquid transportation fuels in the near future and by the year 2025.

The internal combustion engine will continue to play a key role in our transportation mix for decades to come. Therefore, despite fuel and engine advancements in recent years that have made vehicles cleaner and more fuel efficient, there is a continued need to improve vehicle efficiency and reduce the greenhouse gases they emit. The 25x’25 Alliance urges policy makers and industry partners to insure work like the Co-Optima research initiative continues. Additionally, regulators should take a closer look at the rapidly growing scientific evidence around the GHG emission-reduction benefits of biofuels, and acknowledge that they are a smart choice for meeting clean energy targets, while also supporting the U.S. economy.

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