With its ability to attract moisture and clog fuel filters, it’s no wonder America’s boaters have not been thrilled with ethanol in gasoline, which today is most commonly found as a 10% blend and known as E10 at the gas pump. America’s desire for renewable fuels is growing, but recent Department of Energy tests on boat engines showed that increasing the amount of ethanol to 15% doesn’t work for boats. While higher ethanol content has been approved by the EPA for 2001 and newer cars and light trucks, E15 is not legal to use in boats and other gas-powered equipment.
Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS) suggests that butanol, an alcohol with a characteristic banana-like odor typically made from corn and beet byproducts, may be an answer.
Unlike ethanol, butanol is less corrosive, doesn’t attract moisture which can cause harmful “phase separation” of the fuel, and can be mixed in ahead of time and shipped through existing pipelines. It has a higher energy value (110,000 Btu per gallon versus ethanol’s 84,000 Btu), and is safer because its flammability is similar to diesel fuel. So why aren’t America’s boaters, motorists and gas-powered tool and toy owners using butanol?
“Part of the answer is how the stuff is – or was – made,” wrote BoatUS Seaworthy Magazine Editor and Damage Avoidance Expert Bob Adriance. He says, “Back in the 1980’s when the government was looking at biofuels, the cost to produce butanol was much higher than ethanol. Congress also gave ethanol a head start 30 years ago with a subsidy to produce it from corn. However, the subsidy is now expired and new technologies have made the costs to produce both fuels similar, although butanol is ultimately far less expensive to produce in terms of the amount of energy delivered per gallon.”
“With its new cost competitiveness and energy advantages, butanol could be a biofuel that boaters embrace,” said Adriance. “However, we need to find out more about any potential long-term effects, and would need to overcome the not-too-insignificant reality of ethanol’s financial and political momentum in the market today.”