Blending ethanol with gasoline may have been a well-intended plan to reduce our reliance on foreign oil, but for the most part, the experiment has not been a successful one, according to a visiting professor who will lecture here Wednesday.
“Ethanol is a very polarizing fuel,” said Margaret Wooldridge, a professor in the departments of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan. “It can be better than gasoline in terms of emissions and performance efficiency, and has a lot of intrinsically desirable properties, but while there are millions of flex fuel vehicles on the road in the U.S., very few people are fueling them with ethanol.”
Dr. Wooldridge will give a plenary address on the subject of next-generation fuels when she addresses the Canadian section of the Combustion Institute, which is holding its annual spring meeting here. About 120 delegates are expected to attend to share ideas about such topics as engine combustion, biofuels, soot and particulate matter, and detonation.
Wooldridge, whose research is focused on the chemistry of fuels and how that affects efficiency and emissions, will use the example of ethanol-blended fuels to illustrate how industry can avoid what she calls “tiger traps,” or situations where “the cure might not be better than the disease.”
Besides concerns about relying on corn to produce ethanol and the effects that has on driving up food prices, Wooldridge said using mixed fuels – like the gasoline and ethanol blends used in the U.S., which consist of about 10-15 percent ethanol – haven’t been successful because little was done to optimize the engines for the properties of the fuel blends.
“They didn’t really change characteristics of an engine that is expecting gasoline,” she said. “Since the ethanol has less energy content than the gasoline, a fuel blend with high concentrations of ethanol will actually give you poorer fuel economy, if you don’t modify the engine design, so the flex fuel engine appears to be underperforming.”
Far from being opposed to using biofuels like ethanol, Wooldridge said a pure ethanol engine would actually be the ideal.
“It is possible to make an ethanol engine that has better efficiency than a diesel engine,” she said, adding that the fuel could be produced from agricultural waste or other fuel feed stocks, rather than relying solely on corn.
Wooldridge said her lecture will focus on how the combustion research community can play an important role in understanding the best ways to utilize new fuels like ethanol and hydrogen.
“You can believe in oil peaking or not, but there is a finite amount of fossil fuel on this planet,” she said. “There are lots of ways to improve the way we use our fuels. The composition of fuels is changing and if we don’t understand how to adapt, we are going to see fuel economy take a turn for the worse.”
Wooldridge will speak on May 14 at 8 a.m. in Room 1100 at the Ed Lumley Centre for Engineering Innovation.
Registration for the conference is still open. See a complete conference program here.