The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is evaluating whether to increase the allowable content of ethanol in gasoline to 15 percent from 10 percent.
The proposalbased on a March 6 petition to the EPA from Growth Energy, a consortium of ethanol producers and 54 ethanol companieshas auto makers concerned that their vehicles can't physically withstand the higher ethanol content.
However, several major manufacturers of rubber auto parts feel confident they can meet the challenges presented by E15 (gasoline with 15-percent ethanol) nearly as easily as those presented by E10.
The EPA concluded the comment period on the proposal July 20.
Our materials have been designed for E10 resistance, and it is unlikely that an increase of 5 percent will result in the need for redesign of our compounds, said Joe Walker, corporate director of materials for Plymouth, Mich.-based Freudenberg-NOK L.P., and Luis Lorenzo, Freudenberg chief technology officer, in a joint statement.
Freudenberg's confidence is predicated on auto makers' specifying the firm's higher-end fluorocarbon (FKM) materials and backing away from a recent trend to use cheaper polyacrylate (ACM) polymers for original equipment parts, Messrs. Walker and Lorenzo said.
Gates Corp., the Denver-based manufacturer of belts, hose and other rubber auto parts, said it too is positioned to function well in the eventuality of E15's becoming law.
Our newer fuel-resistant hoses, such as Longhorn AF Petroleum Transfer Hose and Barricade Low-Permeation Fuel Line Hose, have been designed to be compatible with ethanol blends up to 85-percent ethanol, the company said.
Similarly, Southfield, Mich.-based Federal-Mogul Corp. regards the prospect of E15 as an opportunity for the company to show how it can assist its customers in meeting that market challenge.
The company has anticipated such an increase in biofuel consumption and has been developing next-generation gasket materials compatible with conventional and biofuels, said Bhawani Tripathy, director of advanced technology and materials in Federal-Mogul's Powertrain Sealing and Bearings division.
In championing E15, Growth Energy noted that U.S. ethanol production has hit a wall of regulations dating back to the 1970s, limiting the ethanol content of gasoline to 10 percent.
Ethanol producers have hit that cap, producing more ethanol than can be used under current restrictions, the organization said in a fact sheet on its Web site. This prevents compliance with the Renewable Fuel Standard and threatens to block research and development into cellulosic and future generations of biofuels.
Growth Energy quoted figures from North Dakota State University, estimating that switching to E15 from E10 would create more than 136,000 green jobs in America's heartland, while reducing U.S. dependence on Middle East oil by 7 billion gallons.
The organization also said that multiple comprehensive studiesincluding a year-long drivability test and more than 5,500 hours of materials compatibility testinghave been performed on ethanol blends ranging from E15 to E85.
Research at the U.S. Department of Energy showed no significant changes in tailpipe emissions or vehicle drivability when E15 was used, Growth Energy said. Research at the University of North Dakota and at Underwriters Laboratories showed that E15 improved gas mileage while causing no harm to engines, it added.
Nevertheless, a number of auto makers, including American Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor North America Inc. and General Motors Corp., have said publicly they don't know what effect E15 will have on their vehicles.
Toyota already has faced problems because of E10. In January, the company recalled 214,500 Lexus GS300/250, IS250/350 and LS460/460L vehicles, model years 2006 through 2008. Some low-moisture ethanol fuels could corrode the fuel delivery pipes in those vehicles, eventually causing fuel leaks, Toyota said at the time.
Both Federal-Mogul and Freudenberg said that acrylic polymerswhich work fine with conventional fuels or E10are contra-indicated in automotive seals or gaskets for use in vehicles fueled by E15.
Recent research at Federal-Mogul clearly shows that as the alcohol content in fuel increases, the performance of acrylic elastomers decreases, Mr. Tripathy said, explaining that volume swell increases sharply when E10 is replaced with E15.
It can only be expected that sealing performance will get impacted if the EPA proposal to increase to E15 is adopted, he said. This may require the use of specialized materials that are resistant to ethanol, such as those under development at Federal-Mogul.
A go-ahead for E15 will favor Freudenberg's strong portfolio of FKM polymers, according to Messrs. Walker and Lorenzo.
Our FKMs will again be shown to be the material of choice for resistance to property change and permeability, they said.
Freudenberg is uniquely positioned as a rubber auto parts supplier to face the challenges of E15, Messrs. Walker and Lorenzo said, because of its research in compound technology in anticipation of increasing ethanol content mandates.
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