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Posted by on May 16, 2012 in Engines, Environment, Fuel, Outboard Engines, US |

Butanol: the Next Great Biofuel for Boats?

BRP, Indmar, and Volvo-Penta work with the NMMA, Argonne Laboratory and the US Department of Energy to see how butanol, also called biobutanol or isobutanol, works in boats.

The E10 ethanol experience soured many boaters on biofuel and the prospect of E15 entering your fuel system is down-right scary, but butanol could turn out to be a far better biofuel—at least, the experts are hoping so, and to find out if they’re right, a cooperative effort has been launched by BRP, Indmar, Volvo-Penta, the NMMA, Argonne Laboratory, and the US Department of Energy. They’re running butanol through a variety of marine powerplants right now, to see how emissions, performance, and reliability are affected. And according to our insider contacts, the prospects look good.

We joined representatives from this group for phase one of their on-the-water butanol (also called isobutanol or biobutanol) testing, in Annapolis, Maryland, this spring. In this video, they explain how they gather and crunch emissions data.

We joined representatives from this group for phase one of their on-the-water butanol (also called isobutanol or biobutanol) testing, in Annapolis, Maryland, this spring. In this video, they explain how they gather and crunch emissions data.

“We already know E15 can destroy engines,” said John McKnight, the NMMA director of environmental and safety compliance. “The higher five-percent oxygen content leads to more heat in the combustion chamber, burned valves and rings, and failing gaskets. But at a 16.1-percent mix, butanol has a three-percent oxygen content, just like traditional fuel. Plus, it’s not water soluble and it has a higher BTU value. This is very promising stuff.”

Jeff Wasil, an engineering tech expert from BRP, manufacturer of Evinrude outboards, agrees. “Isobutanol represents a unique opportunity for BRP and the entire industry,” he said. “We wanted to be proactive, and look at the available fuel options for the future. And so far, the results we’re seeing from butanol look very promising.”

At the trials in Annapolis, they’re running butanol through both inboard and stern drives. Most of the outboard testing is done in the lab, since it’s practical to run an outboard on dry land with a water supply. As they record emissions and efficiency data, they’ll also be testing the mechanical effects of butanol on these marine powerplants.

The experts also note that butanol has other properties that also make it more appealing than ethanol. It doesn’t absorb water like ethanol, reducing corrosion and fuel treatment issues. It doesn’t seem to drastically affect oil viscosity in two-stroke engines. And unlike ethanol it remains stable after being blended at the refinery, which eliminates some of the variability sometimes found in ethanol mixes.

So, when might you start pumping this powerful corn-based punch into your fuel tank? It’ll be a while yet. “Only one refinery is up and running now,” McKnight said, “and distribution is sure to be another challenge. But we’re all committed to collaborating on this project, for the long term.”

The butanol test-team will be performing on-the-water testing from sun-up to sunset every day for a full week; phase two of the testing is to be scheduled for later in 2012.

-Lenny Rudow