Suggest burning a mix of ethanol and water in a diesel engine and most farmers would give you a strange look and advice on places to go.
But tell them it’s supposed to boost fuel efficiency, reduce emissions and extend engine life and you’ll have their attention.
Ron Preston, president and Kevin Kenney, biofuel systems engineer, with Nebraska-based CleanFlex Power Systems get that a lot. Their company has a patented system to retrofit diesel engines to run on at least 15 per cent, 120-proof ethanol and 85 per cent diesel.
But the technology allows diesels to run on up to 95 per cent 120-proof ethanol and just five per cent diesel.
One hundred and twenty proof ethanol is 60 per cent pure ethanol and 40 per cent water.
Let that sink in – 40 per cent water.
With the CleanFlex system, up to 38 per cent of the fuel burned in a diesel engine could be water; 57 per cent would be ethanol and just five per cent of it diesel.
Water, although a vital resource is renewable. And it costs pennies a gallon versus dollars per gallon for diesel, which is finite.
And there’s more. CleanFlex claims its system reduces fuel consumption 10 to 30 per cent, or boosts horsepower by that much, slashes nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions by up to 50 per cent, reduces particulate emissions and results in cooler running engines.
“Engines run cleaner and greener and it gives longer engine life,” Preston said during a recent demonstration at a CaseIH and New Holland dealership in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.
Usually the first question farmers ask is about lubricity. Won’t ethanol and water damage the engine’s fuel injection pump, fuel injectors and pistons?
Nope. The 120-proof ethanol is stored in a separate fuel tank and delivered to the cylinders through the engine’s air intake system, bypassing the injection pump and injectors.
“The point of combustion is where we go in (and the two fuels meet),” Preston said.
The ethanol-water mix enters the cylinder in a vapourized state. And even though ethanol alone has less energy (British Thermal Units) than diesel fuel, combining the fuels results in a slower, cooler, but more thorough burn, Kenney said. The water is converted to steam, which creates power.
“We put a steam engine inside a diesel engine,” Kenney said. “That’s what we’ve done. We’ve harnessed a bigger horse with the same bridle.”
The steam also adds lubricity. The diesel fuel burns better, resulting in less nitrous oxide emissions.
“We have a pre-treatment and we are eliminating emissions so they never happen,” Preston said. “Some of the other technologies are trying to take care of emissions after the fact.”
In the United States, 200-proof ethanol sells for $1.60 a gallon (U.S.) Dilute it by 40 per cent with water and the cost of 120-proof ethanol drops to around a buck a gallon or 25 cents a litre.
Despite being 40 per cent water, 120 proof ethanol won’t freeze even at -73 C. Like any new technology, potential users want independent, third-party data proving it works, and in this case, that it won’t harm engines. The Southwestern Research Institute in Texas is currently studying the CleanFlex system, Preston said.
In the meantime, several engines continue to burn the ethanol-water and diesel combination including the firm’s own 2005 Ford Powerstroke diesel three-quarter ton truck.
“We’ve seen a 30 per cent improvement with fuel economy,” Preston said.
A highway tractor with a 475 hp Cat engine has logged almost 42,000 miles in the United States without any trouble, according to Preston. Fuel costs have dropped 40 per cent. One of the truck’s fuel tanks holds enough 120-proof ethanol to cover 6,000 miles. If the truck runs out, the engine continues to operate normally just on diesel.
Kenney says computers and modern electronics are key to making the system work so flawlessly.
“This system is non-invasive,” he said. “We’re not changing anything on the engine. This is bulletproof.”
According to CleanFlex, its system, properly installed, will not cause engine damage, therefore, it shouldn’t void new engine warranties.
“We’ve talked to many (machinery) company engineers that don’t see a problem,” Preston said, but he agreed engine makers will need to be convinced, just as they were when ethanol and biodiesel first hit the market.
CleanFlex is ready to commercialize its technology. Retrofitting an engine would cost $5,000 to $7,500 and will take half a day by a trained installer, Preston said.
Preston hopes someday hopes diesel engines will come from the factory already fitted with the CleanFlex system.
The American government and military are interested because it fits with the goal of reducing dependency on imported oil, he added. American farmers are interested because it has the potential to dramatically increase the demand for their corn, which is made into ethanol. There are hurdles, such as making 120-proof ethanol generally available, especially to serve truckers, but Preston is confident the challenges can be overcome.
Before Preston and Kenny left they poured two pails of ethanol into the company truck, followed by a couple of jugs of distilled water.
It looked weird.