Will Butanol Replace Ethanol?

We just might see the end of ethanol-laced gasoline — the bane of boaters today — thanks to a new study by Evinrude's parent company, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP).

The Canada-based company has launched a test program to see if blends of gasoline with an alternative biofuel — isobutanol — prove more viable for boaters than ethanol blends, specifically E-15 (gas with 15 percent ethanol). Tests will be conducted under the auspices of the Chicago-based non-profit research entity, Argonne National Laboratory, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office.

By way of background, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has granted a waiver allowing for E-15 to be sold at filling stations, but no marine engine will run reliably on this blend. It is illegal to dispense E-15 at fuel docks. Some marinas pump E-10, but it can also wreak havoc with marine engines if too much water gets in the fuel and leads to a ghastly condition called "phase separation."

However, a 2011 alternative fuel study by BRP, the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) and the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) concluded that isobutanol — known simply as butanol — is a promising alternative fuel in marine engines.

According to a report from BP (British Petroleum), butanol, like ethanol, can be made from corn starch or sugar beets, but its properties are a lot more like gasoline than ethanol. Butanol also contains more energy than does ethanol, which could help improve efficiency over ethanol, BP reports. Last year, BP also entered into a partnership with DuPont to develop technologies for producing butanol.

Jeff R. Wasil, engineering technical expert for emissions testing, certification and regulatory development at BRP, is also a believer in butanol. “Isobutanol represents a unique opportunity for BRP, and the entire marine industry, to be at the forefront of innovation in alternative fuels,” he said.

With oversight from Argonne and the Department of Energy, the project calls for many types of recreational marine inboard and outboard engines to be tested in both a laboratory setting and through on-the-water trials to determine the effects of butanol-extended fuel on engine power, performance, emissions and overall durability. Phase one of the isobutanol testing on the water takes place this week in Annapolis, Maryland. Phase two is planned for later in 2012, according to BRP. Other marine engine manufacturers participating in the study include Indiana-based Indmar Marine inboards and Maryland-based Volvo Penta stern drives.

Keep your fingers crossed that butanol works out well in marine, because if it does, we might someday say adios to ethanol and all of its atrocious side effects.