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Ethanol Industry not Impressed with General Motors' Push on Octane Standard Legislation

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Dave VanderGriend, chief executive officer of Colwich, Kansas,-based ethanol plant designer ICM, is concerned automakers and petroleum interests could crowd out ethanol if a high-octane standard started at a 95 research octane number, or RON. (Photo courtesy of Dave VanderGriend)

While General Motors representative Dan Nicholson indicated this week it was important for the ethanol industry to get behind legislation to set a national octane standard -- starting with a 95 research octane number, or RON -- two officials with the preeminent ethanol plant designer in the United States are calling him out on the carpet.

Nicholson, vice president of global electrification, controls, software and electronic hardware at GM's Global Technical Center, made a push for legislation during a presentation at the National Ethanol Conference in Orlando, Florida, this week.

Brothers Dave and Steve VanderGriend, the chief executive officer and technical manager of fuel and engine technology, respectively, at Colwich, Kansas,-based ICM, told DTN there's a lot more to the high-octane story GM and others are not sharing.

Renewable Fuels Association President and Chief Executive Officer Geoff Cooper told reporters Tuesday in Orlando, that refiners acknowledge they could meet a 95 RON standard with minimal investment, without "using a drop more ethanol."

Cooper said the industry's message all along has been "hey, we want higher octane fuels too, but it needs to come with a lower-carbon component, some kind of environmental performance metrics, and we can't be backsliding on the sources of octane that are being used to get us there."

Cooper said it was "more of the same from the autos" and that the ethanol industry was frustrated because "we feel like we need to be making progress with them on this."

In testimony before Congress last spring, Nicholson stated that 98 RON would be the right level for a standard. "It was surprising to us, and disappointing to us that they turned so quickly to 95 RON," Cooper said.

Dave VanderGriend was in attendance at Nicholson's presentation this week.

"Where there is smoke generally there is fire and there was a lot of smoke in their presentation," VanderGriend said. "This has big oil written all over it and the partnership of GM and big oil will not be a good outcome for agriculture."

Legislation is not needed to set a high-octane standard, he said.

"They can just put it in the (vehicle) owner's manual, premium required," VanderGriend said.

"By 2024 there will be about half the cars on the road already designed to take advantage of higher-octane fuels. At that point EPA could raise the minimum octane since all cars can run on premium today. They do not want to do this because they believe the customers will shy away from cars that require higher octane."


During the presentation Nicholson said coming up with a market-based solution on the issue would be better for all stakeholders, rather than allowing EPA to handle it administratively.

"That statement is disingenuous at best," VanderGriend said.

"Free market would be allowing higher blends of ethanol so that the retailer could up the octane from whatever source made economic sense to them. And the oil industry could supply the higher-octane fuel direct from the refinery if that was a better price. What was being proposed was a 95 RON hose that only the 95 RON cars could fuel from, coming direct from the terminal as a finished fuel."

He said the 95 RON would essentially block retailers from blending ethanol at the station. "This is what the oil industry wants," VanderGriend said, "no blender pumps. They can't control the price if they can't control the product."

VanderGriend said the petroleum industry has been working on various catalysts to produce more octane from a barrel of oil. "The last thing they want is a competitor that can supply clean octane as an alternative to their dirty octane with aromatics," he said.

A 95 RON could be achieved, VanderGriend said, by adding about 7% more ethanol to current E10 gasoline.

"However, if the refinery could raise the octane on their own the increase of ethanol would not be needed," he said. "In fact, with a dedicated 95 RON supply and no RFS (Renewable Fuel Standard) they could remove the ethanol altogether."


Steve VanderGriend has been heavily involved in octane and vehicle performance research for years, working with automotive engineers.

He said 95 RON could be achieved now by making E15 the norm in all gasoline across the country.

"If we wait for legislation, any visible benefits for the ethanol industry will certainly take more than five years since automakers are already certifying 2021 vehicles and when autos say it takes more than five years to get vehicles out there, the first thing they think about is CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) credits," VanderGriend said.

"They see selling higher octane fuels today putting the cart in front of the horse but that is backwards in my view. Today, most cars can take advantage of higher octane like E15 or even up to E25/E30, but this is primarily for highway miles and higher temperature days."

VanderGriend said he has worked on a research paper currently undergoing peer review at North Carolina State University, looking at higher ethanol blends and emissions.

He said five vehicles, including four non-flex fuel vehicles, "had almost no mpg loss for highway driving on E27." The research found lower carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter emissions, with no increase in nitrous oxide.

"Why the ethanol industry doesn't look at history and say E25 should be approved for 2017 and newer vehicles, is ignorant," VanderGriend said.

"Past data, when vehicles were certified with E0, found that vehicles adapted just fine on E15. Now that Tier 3 certification fuel is E10 (required for all 2017 vehicles), we find 2017 and newer vehicles adapt just fine on E25. With E25, we now have 98 RON or consumers can just buy premium E10."

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