Aug 11, 2021
If the global priority with regards to the transportation sector is to reduce carbon emissions, then putting all our eggs in one basket and waiting for electrification to transform the world is already a failed strategy. With nearly 1.5 billion vehicles in the world, and with more than 90 million new vehicles sold annually (*nonpandemic years, of course), it is impossible to envision a transition to relying on only battery electric vehicles (BEV) any time soon, no matter what governments may try to do in terms of sales requirements. So, what should be done regarding the existing and continuing combustion engine-liquid fuels market? To find viable solutions—and we certainly can—we must adopt a broader perspective, be open to options and think about engines and fuels as a system.
Relevant to this topic is our musical feature of the month: Willie Nelson. The song “On the Road Again” plays well with some of the recurring themes found in this column, but the primary importance is found with Willie himself, a strong advocate for the use of biofuels who even established a brand of biodiesel called “BioWillie.” His support for the fuel was based upon personal experience with its performance but also his interest in supporting farmers and reducing America’s reliance on foreign oil.
There are options to improve the emissions profile and lower the carbon impact of traditional powertrains by evaluating engines and fuels from a systemic perspective. One of the most developed efforts in this context involves high compression engines and higher-octane fuel. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Co-Optimization of Fuels and Engines initiative has done great work evaluating what might be possible and how fuel enabling more efficient engine design could be produced.
In addition to what Co-Optima has produced, the Fuels Institute published two reports on octane evaluating its role in engine performance and what it would take to introduce a new high-octane fuel into the market to support advanced engine design. Short story: It would take about 20 years and cost quite bit of money to transition the entire market. But the idea of maximizing fuel properties to improve the efficiency of engines is the right approach, and the results of the Co-Optima research provide some valuable insights into possibilities.
The octane discussion continues, and there are opportunities to be exploited.
BIOWILLIE AND FRIENDS
We have been blending biofuels into petroleum products for decades, and there could be opportunities to leverage that experience to reduce the overall carbon intensity of our fuel, thereby having an immediate impact on carbon emissions from existing and future combustion engine vehicles.
According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), biofuels already provide a lower carbon footprint than hydrocarbon fuels and are projected to improve over time as energy inputs for producing the fuels becomes greener. Compared with California-specification gasoline, starch ethanol (i.e., produced from corn) is 28% less carbon intense and is projected to reach 55% reduction by 2040. Meanwhile, biomass-based diesel (both biodiesel and renewable diesel) is 70% less carbon intense. These are fuels currently available throughout the market with decades of user experience.
While there are some compatibility issues associated with increasing the use of biofuels, these can be overcome on a shorter time frame than will be required to convert the fleet to BEVs. And, according to a study currently under development by the Fuels Institute (slated for release this summer), there are business opportunities associated with the retail of biofuel blends.
The benefits of incorporating more biofuel blends into the market can be enhanced if we apply the systems approach mentioned above. Not all vehicles are manufactured to run on all the biofuel blends that can be brought to market, but if there were a strategy in place in which new combustion engines were designed to take advantage of the performance properties of biofuels, then new markets could develop.
LESSONS FROM THE HIGHWAYMEN
Willie Nelson was a great solo act, but he also found success by joining with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson to form the Highwaymen—a country music supergroup. I think our policymakers can learn a lot from this example of bringing together the best of the best to create something even better—let’s combine the best options available to us to reduce emissions.
I believe the next couple of years represent a unique opportunity to consider the future of federal biofuels policies. The statutory volumetric standards of the Renewable Fuel Standard extend only through 2022, at which point the Environmental Protection Agency will be fully responsible for setting requirements. There are many who believe the program needs to be reconsidered by Congress, and some are suggest that California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard should be reviewed as a possible model. I have no idea how these discussions will play out, but the data suggest a robust biofuels policy could be a significant contributor to the overall objectives of lowering our carbon emissions.
In the shadow of all the attention being given to electrification, it is my hope that policy discussions will incorporate the many ideas that exist and do not ignore the continuous role of the dominant transportation energy source in the world—liquid fuels.
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