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'Beauty' project developing better biofuel engine

An EU-funded collaboration between universities and industry is overcoming limitations in current technologies to develop new bioethanol engines.

Cars and trees © Peter Gutierrez
Research for 'greener' road transport
© Peter Gutierrez

Driven by the need for more sustainable and less polluting sources of energy, the European Union is now more determined than ever to increase the use of renewable fuels. In June 2009, the EU’s  Renewable Energyexternal link and  Fuel Quality Directives set binding targets for renewable energies in the transport sector for the first time, and linked them to greenhouse gas reduction targets.

“Normal commercial gasoline can contain up to 7% ethanol by volume," explains Andrea Gerini of Centro Ricerche Fiat. "These blends are quite easy to handle in modern engine platforms," he says, "but the level of bioethanol content is still quite low.”

Gerini is coordinator of the EU-funded 'Beauty' project ('Bio-Ethanol engine for advanced urban transport by light commercial and heavy-duty captive fleets'), aimed at developing new engines, combustion technologies and fuels that will allow a substantial increase in the use of biofuels.

"Current engine technologies do not allow bioethanol to be used to its full potential, as operations with pure gasoline or low bioethanol content blends do not provide the possibility of increasing the engine’s compression ratio,” explains Gerini.

The overall target of the project is to increase by 10% the efficiency of powertrains, ensuring the lowest level of emissions and maintaining the driveability and performance of conventional fuel engines, including 'cold startability' capabilities.

Promising results, and more questions

“We have not yet completed our experiments but we are obtaining some very interesting results," says Gerini, "confirming the possibility of developing advanced internal combustion engines dedicated to bioethanol. With a spark ignited approach and also with a Diesel approach we have succeeded in using a high percentage of ethanol, with a high conversion efficiency and lower fuel consumption, resulting in fewer CO2 emissions.”

There is still a long way to go before bioethanol becomes a serious option for the wider transport industry. For one thing, there simply isn’t enough bioethanol available at present and, except in Brazil, the cost of producing the renewable fuel is still 1.5 to 2 times higher than the cost of producing gasoline.

And there are other obstacles, not least the ethical and political dilemma involved in using land to grow biofuels rather than food. Still, Gerini sees markets for renewable fuels growing as second generation biofuels are developed.

"It is now up to the European Union and car manufacturers to take the strategic decision to scale up production of this kind of technology, depending on future market opportunities," he says. "Meanwhile, Beauty is providing the vital technical information needed to better understand the potential impact of these new technologies."