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A New Engine Design Promises to Redeem Ethanol

Aside from potentially impacting the food supply and creating more emissions than it saves, ethanol has one more glaring flaw: it contains about a third less energy than gasoline, meaning it gets fewer miles per gallon for vehicles, and can also reduce performance.

The idea hadn't occurred to me that the combustion engine could be redesigned to make ethanol more effective, but the auto industry has obviously had the problem in mind; yesterday, Ricardo, a large auto part maker, said it has designed a new engine that can improve ethanol fuel efficiency by 30 percent, making up for the lower energy content, as well as improving performance.

Ricardo is designing around E40, a gasoline blend with 40 percent ethanol. That's about four times as much ethanol as the common blend available today, but the ethanol industry is agitating for higher blend rates. If Federal targets are achieved, there will also be more ethanol on the market in a few years. There are also already E85 blends in some markets, which Ricardo's engine can also handle.

The main idea Ricardo is working with is pretty well known: ethanol has a higher octane rating than gasoline, so a higher compression engine will improve its economy. A redesigned engine will have some problems; it probably won't be able to run on gasoline alone, potentially limiting where it can be used, and Ricardo says it will cost $4,000 to $4,500 more than a gasoline equivalent.

Higher cost is also a problem for diesel engines, though, and they're still widely used in cars around the world, and trucks in the United States. Perhaps in part because of the similarities to diesel engines, Ricardo is designing its first prototypes for a General Motors heavy-duty pickup.

Not coincidentally, Ricardo is working on its engine in what appears to be a golden age for new engine designs. The guys over at BNET Auto reported yesterday that GM is designing its own electric motor to use in its electric and hybrid vehicles.

And diesel engines aren't being left out; a company called Achates Power, which says it's designing a diesel engine that's better in every regard (fuel efficiency, emissions, power density and size) than existing technology, just raised $19.2 million to compete with two other startups, with an eye to soon selling its technology to the big auto makers.