NMMA endorses biobutanol as alternative to ethanol

NATIONWIDE — A federal mandate for engine manufacturers and oil refineries to increasingly rely on renewable fuel blends for automobiles and vessels has an advocacy group endorsing the use of biobutanol as the gasoline of choice for recreational boaters.

The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) and American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) announced the results of a five-year study last month and endorsed biobutanol as the preferred alternative to ethanol.

At the direction of the U.S. Department of Energy and Argonne National Laboratory, NMMA and ABYC spent five years evaluating how recreational marine engines performed with BB16, gasoline containing 16 percent biobutanol.

Based upon the study, both organizations say biobutanol, which is also referred to as isobutanol, is safer and more suitable for marine engines than ethanol. Specifically, NMMA and ABYC stated biofuel blends containing butanol are ideal for boaters and preferred over ethanol and found biobutanol does not separate from gasoline when mixed with water. Conversely, ethanol separates from gasoline when exposed to water, according to the study’s results, causing the fuel to be corrosive to engine parts.

“Biobutanol contains 88 percent of the energy content of gasoline compared to 66 percent for ethanol,” said Jeff Wasil, an engineering manager with Bombadier Recreation Products. “The higher energy content of biobutanol means that you can use more biofuel in gasoline. For example, 16 percent biobutanol is equivalent to the energy content of 10 percent ethanol.”

Gevo, a renewable energy producer aiming to commercialize biobutanol, collaborated with NMMA during the testing period. The company’s leadership stated biobutanol fuel blends, when compared to ethanol, provide higher energy content, reduce engine corrosion and prevent moisture absorption.

“The marine industry has been looking for a fuel that is renewable and meets performance needs in boats that are new, old, and anywhere in-between. According to the results from an exhaustive five years of testing, isobutanol accomplishes that,” said Glenn Johnston, Gevo’s vice president of regulatory affairs. “Isobutanol does not phase separate with water as ethanol does – making possible a marine fuel that boaters desire because it minimizes breakdowns, reduces maintenance needs, and does not detract from the longevity of their fuel systems.”

Johnston added biobutanol solves supply chain issues for boaters and is scalable for mass production. How the biofuel performs on the market, however, remains to be seen.

“It is scalable today from a technology standpoint. Additional capacity needs to be built to see isobutanol in widespread use. How it is priced will depend on the marketplace,” Johnston said.

NMMA staff stated biobutanol fuel blends are not yet available to consumers on a large scale and it could be at least two years before the biofuel blend becomes widely available. In the meantime, NMMA officials say industry leaders will be encouraging marine fuel distributors, retailers and consumers to create a market for biobutanol-blended gasoline.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, biobutanol is produced from biomass and from similar feedstocks as ethanol, including corn and sugar beets. The EPA considers biobutanol a renewable fuel and is an acceptable form of alternative fuel under the congressionally-mandated Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

Until biobutanol is scalable, Johnston hopes recreational boaters will search for gas stations where biofuel is available or request the alternative fuel everywhere else.

“Hopefully [boaters] will find isobutanol-blended gasoline, and ask for it elsewhere as well – which will create more demand for it. Doing so will make it easier to build more production capability,” Johnston said. “Isobutanol can serve in many markets, in addition to fuel blendstocks.”

Current RFS mandates require oil refineries to blend 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel into its gasoline supply by 2022. NMMA hopes its resolution to establish biobutanol as the industry standard translates to a shift away from ethanol-blended gasoline.

“The recreational boating industry is highly focused on the need to move towards alternative, renewable fuels and continues to support that effort,” an NMMA statement said. “It is important to find fuel sources that are not only renewable but also safe for all engines. Multiple reports show that ethanol blends greater than 10 percent cause significant damage to marine engines.”

For more information on biobutanol, visit afdc.energy.gov/fuels/emerging_biobutanol.html

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