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Isobutanol: Marine industry’s biofuel savior?

By Brent Renneke

With a waiver recently approved by the Environmental Protection Agency authorizing ethanol in gasoline up to 15 percent by volume, the marine industry is looking for an alternative biofuel to what its experts say is poison to marine engines.

With the well-publicized issues E15 causes in marine applications, members of the marine industry are investigating the potential of isobutanol as a biofuel, said Jeff Wasil, engineering technical expert at BRP Evinrude.

“Instead of just saying E15 will cause problems, we wanted to go a step further and identify another fuel that may be of more significance to our industry,” Wasil said.

Firstly, Wasil said isobutanol can be safely blended into gasoline at 16 percent by volume. Ethanol can only safely be used in marine engines up to a 10 percent concentration. Furthermore, isobutanol contains more energy, containing almost 90 percent of the energy gasoline contains.

Also, ethanol has a tendency to absorb water, causing a phase separation in fuel tanks that can prove disastrous. Wasil said isobutanol does not have the same affinity to water, making separation much less likely.

According to Wasil, the benefits extend beyond the fuel tank. Currently, ethanol cannot be distributed through existing pipelines. Instead, it needs to be blended with the gasoline and transported by trucks and tankers dues to its corrosiveness. Isobutanol would be able to be distributed from the producer through the current pipeline infrastructure.

In collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Argonne National Laboratory and BRP Evinrude’s Wasil will spend the summer and fall further testing isobutanol. Wasil said E0, E10 and B16 (isobutanol) fuels will be tested in a variety of engines on water.

“A lot of folks in the marine industry have stepped up to participate in this study, so we can better understand the effects of these fuels,” Wasil said.

The study will be the first extensive testing by the marine industry since isobutanol was first identified as an alternative fuel in a 2011 study completed by the NMMA with support from Volvo Penta and BRP.

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