Argonne and marine partners say 15 percent renewable butanol blends are safe for watercraft

July 30, 2015 |

In Illinois, Argonne National Laboratory, Bombardier Recreational Products, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and the American Boat and Yacht Council, have  demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of a blend of fuel that includes 16 percent butanol for use in watercraft. This demonstration has culminated in the approval of the fuel by the NMMA, as an alternative to the 15 percent ethanol blend for much of the recreational boating fleet.

The approval is the result of several years of cooperative research between BRP and Argonne, whose research was funded by the Vehicle Technologies Office within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The research involved the evaluation of performance, efficiency and emissions, including particulates, as well as durability and lubrication effects over a wide range of recreational boat engine types and sizes from several manufacturers.

“Butanol at 16 percent blend level works as well as ethanol at 10 percent under tested conditions,” said Argonne’s Thomas Wallner, a principal investigator at the laboratory’s Center for Transportation Research. “There was a push to increase the amount of ethanol in fuel, from 10 to 15 percent,” he said.

The news from Argonne is an accidental but presumably welcome companion to news from Texas this week that Express Lube of Fredericksburg became the first service station to sell renewable isobutanol, avowedly because of what some customers perceive as performance advantages for marine and off-road engines. The news is sure to attract push-back from ethanol proponents, who have contended that ethanol is a safe fuel for boating if used in keeping with guidelines.

Argonne said that increasing the percentage of bioenergy in the boating mix would provide environmental benefits, however, the technologies used by a significant percentage of boats, such as carburetors and open-loop controls, are not immediately well-suited to the further addition of ethanol in fuel. Furthermore, infrequent usage patterns typical for recreational boats can cause challenges at increased ethanol levels. Because ethanol attracts water, dormancy can allow the surrounding water to enter the fuel tank and form a layer inside, adversely affecting engine performance. Butanol, on the other hand, lacks the water attraction properties of ethanol, mitigating the potential engine performance issue.

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