A new solution to the E15 debacle?

Isobutonal . . . if you’re a scotch drinker you already love it. If you’re a marine engine builder you may come to love it! That’s because isobutonal is a flavor note in scotch and, even more important (unless you’re addicted to scotch, I suppose), it may well be an alternative to ethanol!

Let’s see if I have all this right so far: (1)The farmers don’t want to stop selling corn at record prices for ethanol; (2) The ethanol producers don’t want to give up their government subsidies; (3) The EPA didn’t want to listen to reason so it granted a waiver to pander to the farm vote; (4) We have a Congress that couldn’t agree on the date for a New Year’s Eve party; And (4) They are all happy to ruin millions of our customers' marine and other small engines by increasing E10 to E15! But can such a debacle be stopped? Maybe . . . enter Isobutonal.

NMMA legislative director Jim Currie, speaking to MRAA’s Advisory Council of Marine Associations, revealed preliminary tests show promise that corn-based isobutonal could be a safe gasoline additive in marine and other engines. The idea is that if further testing supports these early results, isobutonal will be a viable alternative to ethanol, farmers could still sell corn for fuel and the damage to engines would be averted. The critical point at this time is that there may be an acceptable alternative to ethanol, making any rush to increase to E15 as blatantly ill-advised as EPA’s initial decision to allow the increase.

Without getting too technical, isobutonal can be produced from corn and other ethanol feedstocks. Ethanol is made by feeding sugar to yeast, which secretes the ethanol. But the same yeast also converts some of the sugar to isobutanol. Turning off the yeast’s ability to make ethanol increases its production of isobutanol. Moreover, motor fuel from butanol could also qualify as an advanced biofuel under a federal law that dictates a quota for such fuels.

Isobutanol acts like a hydrocarbon and can be blended with a variety of fossil fuels. Right now, it comes primarily from oil but at least one company, Gevo, has developed genetically modified yeast that eats those feedstocks and generates isobutonal. Ethanol, as our marine industry knows too well, is a product that corrodes pipelines, absorbs water, ruins small engines and has a lower energy density (a gallon of ethanol only contains about 67 percent of the energy of a gallon of gasoline while biobutonal reportedly contains 82 percent.)

In the battle over E15, Mercury, BRP and Volvo Penta have been providing industry leadership both in documenting the damage E15 will cause and testing the promise that isobutonal is an acceptable alternative. At the same time, Gevo, a renewable chemicals and biofuels company, recently purchased and is converting an ethanol plant in Minnesota (a relatively easy refit) to produce 18 million gallons of isobutonal because of the chemical advantages it has over ethanol. For example, isobutonal can also be used to replace oil in plastics and rubber while ethanol has only one use, replacing oil in gasoline while yielding less energy.

Both NMMA and MRAA are actively opposing E15. NMMA, for example, is part of a multi-association lawsuit challenging EPA’s authority to grant the E15 waiver under the Clean Air Act as well as Currie and his Washington staff actively lobbying EPA and Congress. MRAA, at the heeding of ACMA, is also engaged in lobbying Congress in support of bills or amendments that would stop the race to E15 by defunding. None have succeeded so far. Regardless, the national associations cannot be expected to handle this alone. All dealers, as well as all our customers, must stay informed and engaged. One idea is to include this information in your newsletter or e-mail news that goes out to your customers. Another is to print out this blog and have in on your store counter.

One good thing seems more encouraging today than yesterday – the days of E15 may finally be numbered. So, sip your scotch but stay tuned in!


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