A team of researchers from Ford Motor Company are asserting in a paper published in the journal Fuel that “substantial societal benefits” would arrive for consumers by using higher volume blends of ethanol to leverage the alcohol’s inherent high octane rating to produce ethanol-gasoline blends with higher octane numbers.

Octane numbers measure in scale the ability of a fuel to resist “knock” an ignition event resulting from premature fuel burning in spark-ignited engines.  The early ignition drives the piston back down the cylinder the wrong direction, which can cause engine damage when the “knock” is severe or prolonged.

Higher octane ratings in fuel blends would enable greater thermal efficiency in future engines through higher compression ratios and/or more aggressive turbocharging and downsizing of current engines on the road today through more aggressive spark timing under some driving conditions.

Ethanol's Impact on RON Octane Ratings in Gasoline. Click image for the largest view.

Ethanol and methanol offer higher research octane numbers (RON) and motor octane numbers (MON) when compared to gasoline. The alcohols also have a greater latent heat of vaporization than gasoline, which contributes to their higher RON values and provides additional charge cooling in direct-injection (DI) engines.  That means when the alcohols are sprayed into the engine’s induction air the charge of air is cooled more by the evaporation of the alcohol.

The two alcohols are not equal to gasoline.  Detractors focus on the lower energy density than gasoline, potentially higher or lower vapor pressures, altered distillation properties, and potential for water-induced phase separation.  These are all valid points – easily compensated for by proper engineering.

Today the situation is that ethanol is blended into a gasoline blendstocks formulated with a lower octane rating such that the net octane rating of the resulting final blend for sale is unchanged from historical levels.

Ford is making the case, with a hard scientific, peer reviewed, repeatable study what racing folks, hot rodders, engineers, and smart consumers with high compression engines have known for years.

The high octane rating of ethanol could be used in a mid-level ethanol blend to increase the minimum octane number (Research Octane Number, RON) of regular-grade gasoline.

Ford suggests that the societal benefit comes from automakers having an opportunity to improve their engines to a higher compression ratio.  The compression ratio is a comparison of the volume of the open cylinder to the cylinder volume when the piston has squeezed the cylinder to the smallest volume.  The same amount of fuel and air squeezed into a smaller space sets up a more energetic fuel burn that equals more mechanical energy out and less heat lost.
The Ford team used their already developed a linear molar octane blending model to quantify RON potential from ethanol and blendstock.  From the results the team estimated that an increase of 4-7 points in RON are possible by blending in an additional 10–20% by volume of ethanol above the 10% already present.

Here’s the opportunity Ford sees, keeping the blendstock RON at 88 (which provides E10 with a 92.5 RON), the estimated RON would be increased to 94.3 for E15 to as much as 98.6 for E30. The team further suggests RON increases may be achievable assuming changes to the blendstock RON and/or hydrocarbon composition.  An increase in blendstock RON from 88 to 92 would increase the RON of E10 from 92.5 to 95.6, and would provide higher RON with additional ethanol content (e.g., RON of 97.1 for E15 to 100.6 for E30).  This is high performance territory.

From the scenarios considered in the paper, the team estimated compression ratio increases to be on the order of 1–3 compression ration units for port fuel injection engines as well as for direct injection engines in which the greater evaporative cooling of ethanol can be fully utilized.

Ford is making a case that has been obvious to many for decades.  That has not stopped the detractors and the ill-informed followers from thinking up an assortment of ways to mislead consumers, the media and policy makers.  The facts the detractors have can prove up with low compression engine builds, poor maintenance, and skewing results.  There is also a strong motive.  The oil industry isn’t thrilled to lose 10% of the gasoline market to a competitor.

For everyone else, a higher compression ratio would be a good thing.  More efficiency, less fuel used and for the environmental types, less air would be cycled through engines.

What is, and as Ford points outs could be, the important issue is keeping the gasoline supply for sale with octane ratings high enough and priced so that higher levels of compression can be engineered into production vehicles at mass scale.

The point not being made was a significant point a couple decades ago when unleaded gasoline became the rule – lowering compression ratios.  It’s a waste of engineering, materials and air to mandate low octane ratings when the science and experience have proven otherwise for about one hundred years.

Perhaps Ford will be marking a turning point, getting the fuel market quality high enough to put efficiency with simple economy back into the automobile market.  It’s certainly been a long enough wait so far.


9 Comments so far

  1. Benjamin Cole on April 9, 2012 11:36 AM

    Indy cars ran on methanol. before switching to ethanol, probably for PR reasons.

    BTW, a company named Methanex converts natural gas and sells it as methanol for $1.34 a gallon. That’s now, today. That’s not a theory, a maybe, a promise.

    Methanol would be a great fuel for the USA.

  2. Travis Jacobsen on April 9, 2012 2:19 PM

    Celanese, a global technology and specialty materials company, has developed an advanced process, called Celanese TCX® Technology, for the production of fuel-grade ethanol. TCX is a thermochemical process using locally available hydrocarbons such as natural gas and coal to produce commercial scale volumes of ethanol that can help meet rising global demand for transportation liquid fuel. This technology was recently featured in Forbes magazine. See the story on Forbes.com at:


  3. Edward T Gillespie on April 9, 2012 6:47 PM

    You told it like it is! The major oil companies and most car manufactures have misled the American Public for reasons that are obvious. Oil companies lose volume which translates into lower profits. The car manufactures do not want to retool so the American people are fed propaganda to keep them in the DARK. We fight wars to keep it this way.

    Ed Gillespie

  4. Advanced BioFuels USA » High Octane Number Ethanol–Gasoline Blends: Quantifying the Potential Benefits in the United States on April 11, 2012 10:58 AM

    […] octane rating of ethanol in future higher octane number ethanol–gasoline blends.  READ MORE and MORE (New Energy and Fuel) Related […]

  5. Bill Brandon on April 11, 2012 2:37 PM

    The white paper from Ford supports what some have been saying for years, that vehicle efficiency needs to come from the quality of fuel, not from more engine engineering. Two commenters have supported methanol on a cost basis. This low cost is based on the massive oversupply of natural gas that we are presently experiencing. This price bubble will not last. When establishing fuel policy, it is questionable if methanol and ethanol an be used interchangeably. Vehicle control systems based on oxygen sensors will not know which alcohol is being used. It is also questionable if higher octane ratings can be obtained with E10 alone as blending with regular gasoline will increase the Reid vapor pressure. Blending stocks remove the more volatile C4 and C5 molecules to reduce RVP. RVP spikes at E10 and then gradually decreases. Ethanol can be produced from natural gas so using ethanol for fuel policy is preferable over methanol. Ethanol made from natural gas should not try to replace renewable ethanol in policy decisions, however its presence will help to speed adoption of high ethanol blends. It has been known for almost 100 years that blending butanol with a gasoline/ethanol blend reduces RVP and helps blend stability. Bio-butanol will be in production this year and volumes can quickly increase. Auto manufacturers need to know that improved octane fuels can be supplied in quantity at reasonable cost. This will most likely happen with a tri-blend of butanol, ethanol and gasoline.

    Bill Brandon

  6. Corn Hugger » Blog Archive » Ethanol Facts for Star Tron Delusions on April 17, 2012 4:21 AM

    […] cited getting better fuel mileage using mid-level blends like E30. Today’s higher compression engines run much better on the higher-octane ethanol fuel. Tweet This Post posted by admin in News and have No […]

  7. Marshall Kaplan on July 14, 2012 12:27 PM

    Amen. I have been writing a blog for a few months titled Over the Barrel for Fuel Freedom Foundation (www.fuelfreedom.org) urging based on studies by respected independent analysts that we need increase the use of flex fuels including ethanol and methanol to reduce dependency on oil. The Ford researchets’ study is unique since it generates from an auto company in an industry traditionally against moving towarde more consumer choices re. fuel. I am not sure Ford has yet endorsed the study….but using a baseball anology, maybe they are rounding third and coming home.If so it would be could for the country, consumers, and you and I. Marshall Kaplan (www.fuelfreedom.org

  8. Marshall Kaplan on July 14, 2012 12:29 PM

    this site seems to stimulate comments. For those who have called, I urge you to look at http://www.fuelfreedom.org.

  9. Marco on July 17, 2012 9:42 AM

    all looking good, but we have been in a refinery rationing mode for the last 3 years and right now US is short of gasoline notwithstanding the reduction of demand (4% yoy) and the increase of etoh blending by mandate. E10 is already a given all over the country, people are thinking to go to e15 or higher percentage cause from next year e10 won’t cover the mandate requirement. small constraints: ETOH is more expensive than gasoline looking forward…..are driver ready to pay up?

    and btw this is the first study which state a better mileage per gallons of etoh blend vs gasoline…i hope it’s true!

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