Making diesel engines more efficient with hydrous ethanol

Hydrous Ethanol

From left: Richard Peterson, MCR&PC; Rod Larkins, AURI; Jeff Hwang, U of M graduate assistant; Will Northrop, U of M researcher and Jerry Ploehn, MCR&PC check out a John Deere 4-cylinder engine being used to research hydrous ethanol in diesel engines.

Inside a square room at the University of Minnesota’s new T.E. Murphy Engine Research Laboratory in Minneapolis, Will Northrop is working to refine a cleaner and more efficient diesel engine.

With funding support from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and AURI, Northrop and his team at the U of M’s Department of Mechanical Engineering are developing technology to use hydrous ethanol as the primary fuel in diesel engines.

When used in diesel engines, hydrous ethanol, which contains more water than traditional anhydrous ethanol, reduces emissions, lowers fuel costs and grows the overall ethanol market. It’s also less expensive than anhydrous ethanol, good news for farmers and other diesel fuel users.

“This really is a true multi-fuel,” said Jerry Ploehn, who farms in Alpha and is on the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council (MCR&PC).

Northrop and his team are testing a system that allows higher ethanol-to-diesel energy fraction than currently available systems by injecting 160-proof hydrous ethanol near the intake port instead of continuous fumigation in the intake plumbing. It also reduces emissions and improves engine fuel efficiency.

“Our objectives include developing a hydrous ethanol port-injection system that will be applicable for a range of after-market applications and engine types,” Northrop said. “By developing a stand-alone ethanol fuel injection system, we envision no modification of the existing engine control unit.”

There currently isn’t a demand for dual-fuel-mode engines because very few people are aware that it is even possible. That’s why Northrop is developing a timed port-injection system to deliver hydrous ethanol to a variety of existing diesel engines, lowering emissions and cutting costs in the process.

Research is currently being done on an engine commonly used on farms: a 4-cylinder John Deere 4045H Tier 2 diesel engine. A timed hydrous ethanol port injection system could help eliminate the need for expensive particulate filters and catalytic devices to meet off-road emissions standards in older diesel engines.

In addition to tractors, dual-fuel-mode diesel systems could be a fit for harvesters and irrigator pumps on Minnesota farms. Farmers make up about 16 percent of diesel fuel use in Minnesota. Ethanol plants could also divert hydrous ethanol during the distillation process and use it to fuel stationary diesel generators that power plant operations to reduce processing and fuel costs.

Dual-fuel-mode diesel systems require two separate tanks to deliver fuel to the engine: one with hydrous ethanol and one with diesel. Right now, about 10 percent of the dual-fuel engine’s power comes from ethanol. Northrup and his team are trying to increase that percentage.

“It’s our goal to have a demo up and running sometime this summer,” he said.

For corn farmers, the project is another step toward meeting growing consumer demand for homegrown cleaner-burning fuels and expanding markets for Minnesota-grown corn.

“This is an innovative, forward-looking project,” said Richard Peterson, who farms in Mountain Lake and is also on the MCR&PC. “As a corn farmer, I’m proud to support a project like this and look forward to seeing this project evolve in the coming months.”

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