Biofuel pumps

By Bob Difley

How would you like to pull into a filling station and have a choice of different fuels, all of which you can use efficiently in your existing gasoline engine. That’s the ‘Holy Grail of Energy Security,’ says Don Hillebrand, director of Argonne National Laboratory’s* Center for Transportation Research. “An engine that can run on whatever is available has several major security advantages.”

With today’s strangle-hold on fuel by the oil industry, your options are gasoline, gasoline, or gasoline. If you want to use another fuel, your choices include diesel, also a petroleum based fuel for which you need an entirely different engine, or electric—also requiring a different motor/engine configuration—and which has yet to become part of mainstream transportation.

The spark-ignition engine being developed by Argonne’s “omnivorous engine project” would run on a variety of liquid fuels, such as gasoline, ethanol and butanol. Butanol is an organic alcohol that can be fermented from biomass or made entirely with solar energy from algae. It has an octane rating closer to that of gasoline than ethanol, which is also an alcohol fuel. Vehicles able to run on straight gasoline or 10% ethanol will run on butanol. Butanol tolerates water contamination better and is less corrosive than ethanol and more suitable for distribution through existing pipelines used for gasoline. These factors piqued the interest of both DuPont and BP that formed a joint venture to bring butanol, currently more expensive to produce than ethanol, to market at competing prices.

But the ability to get the engine to run on any of the three fuels—or any combination of the three—is the breakthrough needed to make it work, a process that involves adjusting the spark timing and fuel injection automatically based on the blend. Tom Wallner, an Austrian PhD engineer working on the project, admits, “It’s more on the controls than it is on the hardware. The engine must determine what fuel it is, then tune itself to run efficiently on that fuel.”

Your choice, as you stand with pump handle in hand gazing at the multi-fuel selection, would be whatever fuel is cheapest at the time, effectively unlocking petroleum’s handcuffs on fuel pricing, while causing different fuels to compete with each other on the street. But that’s not all. A nation’s economy that is held captive by foreign suppliers is a major national security risk, as has been demonstrated by OPEC, terrorist threats, and hostile governments.

Could we thereby reduce our need for foreign oil, if not completely, at least from unstable or hostile countries? And wouldn’t this also reduce the stress of an unstable, roller-coaster fuels market, enabling additional domestic alternative fuels to be developed without our backs to the wall trying to pump yet more oil?

*The government established Argonne National Laboratory, 30 miles southwest of Chicago’s Loop, after WWII as the country’s first national laboratory. The lab, funded by the Department of Energy, does research into nuclear energy, as well as basic scientific inquiries, and operates several user facilities for the benefit of scientists from all over the country.

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  161. Multi-fuel vehicles have been around for a long time… In world war II, wouldn’t most military vehicles run on just about anything?

  162. Kc Stangel

    I hope this comment is not to late… Several posts back someone talked about an engine that was developed in the ’60s that could run on different fuels. Perhaps, you are thinking of the Chrysler Turbine Engine. It was seemingly a great idea. According to my cousin who then worked for Chrysler, it would burn various fuels to varying effecientcies. The rumor was it was “killed” by threatened suits by oil co’s at a troubled time for Chrysler with no money to fight. A Turbine engine was also run (somewhat,successfully in the Indy 500 (I think by AJ Foyt) but was legislated out by Holman family and others over air-intake issues. Kc

  163. Bob Difley

    Derek – Thank you very much for your comments on converting your RV to LPG. It was very informative. It sounds like an efficient way to take the next step toward fuel efficiency until the next wave of electric or biofuel vehicles comes mainstream. Do any more of you out there in RV land have experience with LPG, or CNG? I’d like to hear from you.

  164. Derek Elliott

    Hi I live in the UK where petrol is considerably more expensive than the US, I have Damon Daybreak RV with the chevy 8.1 Vortec returns on petrol about 10/12 to the gallon at 55 MPH, I have converted the engine to run on LPG Liquid Petroleum Gas, we have two tanks installed holding 300 litres of LPG , LPG in the UK is around 60 pence a litre against 112 pence per litre for petrol, we obtain around 20 MPG when you compare the cost difference between the two fuels, the downside is the installation costs at around £2400 UK pounds, the more you use it offsets the installation cost.

    The system has a second bank of injectors and two vaporisers to feed the fuel in to each bank of cylinders, the system is controled by its on computer, the engine starts on petrol and switches seamlessly to LPG when the LPG is warm enough, about 5 minuets, if you run out of LPG it switches back to petrol.

    The performance of the engine is the same or slightly better than on petrol, the engine oil keeps very much cleaner, the majority of my friends that have RV’s run on LPG




  166. jjtotten says “The problem is getting the “government” out of the way . . .” Nobody like the government, but it is us that put the people in place that collectively make up the government. But if we got the government “out of the way” we would still have acid rain, uncontrolled pollution, and filthy air. To let gasoline companies–or any company for that matter–to have free reign over their operations would be disasterus to our environment, workers, and the economy. Business has one goal–to make money for its shareholders. Controls that keep industry in check, that protect our quality of life, are not on their agenda for making money.
    It has been stated over and over again, the amount of oil we have in reserve is a drop in the bucket compared to the world oil supply. The oil we drill would just flow into that international supply, not lower prices at American gas pumps–unless you want to nationalize American oil companies and force them to sell to American interests at below market prices.
    And the strangle-hold I mention is not by individual oil companies, but from the collective oil industry. By that I mean that we as drivers of vehicles, have only one choice to fuel our vehicles, an oil product–whether it is gasoline or diesel. There are no other choices. That, to me, is certainly a strangle-hold.
    Lastly, even if there was plenty of gas–accepting the wildest claims of American oil reserves–we should be weaning our transportation system off fossil fuels–and especially foreign oil– not producing more. Global warming has proven the disastrous effects of burning fossil fuels, and hostile oil producing nations have proven how under their thumb we are to the whims of their leaders. This can be accomplished with alternative fuels–biodiesel, B85 ethanol blends (made from switchgrass or other cellulosic fuel sources), hybrid and electric vehicles. And we can reverse our use of fossel fuels with these alternative sources in equal or less time that we could get oil from new oil fields to market.
    Thanks for your comments, and for keeping the discussion going. Bob

  167. Bob

    Just remember to buy miles instead of gallons. By that, I mean to point out that a gallon of ethanol has about 2/3 of the energy as in a gallon of gas and therefore is going to be able to deliver only 2/3 of the mileage. This means that as a motor fuel, it is only worth 2/3 as much per gallon! Butanol is much closer to gasoline on a per gallon basis. And, for the record, I don’t buy gasoline because I like the way it smells!

  168. jjtotten

    This is a great article about what is going on in the fuel industry. Thanks for the info. I do not, however, accept the premise that the “oil industry” has us in a “strangle hold” at all. The industry has been hamstrung by our leglislative bodies and environmentalists who are determined to control our society by not allowing the production of enough oil to keep the speculators from controlling the prices. As soon as it was thought that there would be more production, not actually even produced yet, but the possibility the prices began to drop. In addition to that environmentalists have not allowed a new refrinery to be put on line in the last 30 years. That is not a “strangle hold” by the oil industry at all. The “strangle hold” has its origin some other place. Recently a refrinery in the east attempted to increase the size of their existing facility to help with the increased demand. Immediately there were a whole new set of restrictions and requirements put on the facility. That is certainly not a “strangle hold” put on by the oil industry. The goal of the oil industry is to sell more of its products to help meet the demand. Why is it that so many blame the problems on the “big bad oil industry”? To continue to allow our legislative bodies attempt to come up with solutions when the solution, when allowed to operate, is the law of supply and demand. I think I learned that in Econ 101. When we attempt to let bean counters in DC do the planning we will continue to see wasted dollars on “solutions” like gasolol which has consumed millions if not billions of dollars to come up with a solution that takes more than a gallon of gasoline to produce a gallon of alcohol which has 25% less energy than the gasoline. Not that gasohol is a bad idea it was just managed poorly. Put into place by special interests with a special interest in the money they could make.

    You article demonstrates what industry can accomplish if they are not placed in a streightjacket and not allowed to do what it does best. Actually getting these ideas to the market place will probably be “leglislated and controlled to death” before they get a chance to be used to benefit us.

    There is plenty of energy available for use. The problem is getting the “government” out of the way so they can be made available.

  169. Bob Difley

    Janaia – The addition of an electric motor to gasoline engines is a different animal than creating a hybrid from scratch. For instance, a size of a gasoline engine is determined by its maximum need, such as accelerating when entering a freeway or going up hill. But even when all that power is not needed all eight cylinders still operate using gasoline. In a hybrid, the electric motor takes over when all that power is not needed, such as cruising at freeway speeds on level ground or driving steadily and slowly as in city traffic. For a good basic explanation of the differences between hybrids and gasoline engines and how they work go to: http://www.howstuffworks/hybrid-car.htm

    However, the addition of a electric engine to a gasoline will help the mileage but not be as efficient as a downsized gasoline engine coupled with an electric motor the way a hybrid is designed. And, unfortunately, I don’t know any after market sources for adding an electdric motor. Maybe some of the informed readers of this blog can help out.
    As for the fuel from water, I belong to the “I’ve got to see it to believe it” skeptics club. And again, if any of you readers have any first hand experience with the doublegasmileage device, I would appreciate your thoughts and results.
    One last point. Those of you who haven’t seen Janaia’s film interviews with people who are making a difference, take time to check out her web site at:

  170. Bob, Two things:
    You mention add-on electric motor systems for gasoline vehicles, and Gary gave us a link to AZD, which does this for Ford E450s. Can you give us additional links? Our motorhome has a Ford E350, and we have modified it to be a mobile video studio to tape our Peak Moment conversations.

    We are planning a 6-9 month cross-country videotaping trip starting early in 2009. As much as possible, we to “be” the change we wish to see in the world, and would like to explore an electric-motor add-on for the RV. (From what you say, I think our Chevy Metro may be too small for an add-on electric motor, darn).

    We’d sure appreciate leads from anybody – contact me at [email protected].

    Two. We’ve heard about small add-on devices for the ICE which convert water to hydrogen and provide more efficient fuel-burning. One such link is Has anybody got the real story on these — hype, for-real, reputable manufacturers, etc.?

    P.S. About our programs: Peak Moment Conversations are weekly half-hour programs showcasing people with perspectives and initiatives for resilient, self-reliant, fossil fuel-independent local communities. As of August 2008, about 123 can be viewed online at Topics like local food production, renewable energy, sustainability, permaculture, green building, green business.

    Thanks all,
    Janaia Donaldson ([email protected])

  171. Rick


    The Army used miltifuel engines in their 5 ton trucks throughout the Vietnam war. They would run on Diesel, Gasoline, Kerosene and any of the Jet Fuel derivatives as well as Alcohol.

  172. Bob

    I’ve read the above wives tale probably since the 60s. I believe this has been thoroughly debunked over the years along with the pills in the gas tank and a multitude of other things that claim to increase gas mileage. I’ve found the best, cheapest, and quickest way to increase mileage is to lie about it. For example: I get 55 mpg at 75 mph uphill towing a 12000 pound trailer. See what I mean? That didn’t take long at all.

  173. Redneck

    I don’t know if you beilieve in wives tales, but in some of the books I’ve read about years past, didn’t someone invent a carburated engine in the 1960’s that had better fuel mileage than the cars we have now and the goverment bought ( took it)it from the inventor and told them to keep their mouth shut ,that the project never happened (it was one of their scientist) because they would lose too much on the fuel tax they charge the american public. NOT HERE TO START A ARGUEMENT, it was just something i read somewhere

  174. AZD has developed the Balance Hybrid Electric drive system for Ford’s E450 Cutaway and Strip Chassis trucks. The Balance hybrid drive system manages the conventional 5.4 litre Triton gasoline engine and the 5-speed automatic TorqShift transmission to produce a cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicle for your business needs. The hybrid features electric-launch assist, engine-off at idle and regenerative braking which combine to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  175. Lupin

    I’ve been working with butanol for a while. In my unofficial study of about 100 coworkers and friends I have found that people perceive the odor differently. I sould ask them to take a slight whiff and then tell me if they thought the odor was “pleasant, neutral or unpleasant.” About 1/4 thougth it smelled good. One person said, “Mmmm! Fruity-licious!” Another person thought is smelled like port wine. About 1/4 thought it was was unpleasant. At the far end of the spectrum I had someone say it smelled “like something the dog left on the lawn”.
    About half the people said it was neutral – “smells like a hospital”, “smells clean.”
    Maybe everyone perceives it differently. Like asparagus.
    So, give it a try if you get a chance.

  176. Fred

    Well Bob, again your research has turned up some good news. Little-by-little some people and companies are coming up with more varieties of ways to keep America driving with some 1950’s freedom.

    It has been a long time in coming and it has taken an energy and economic jolt to wake us up. We have been way too complacent for way too long. I am one of the guilty ones.

    In the next few years our under-achieving population will hopefully inherit the efforts of leaders in business and politics alike. The waste conversion and multi-fuel ideas are but a drop in the bucket, but will definately contribute to easing our energy stress and encourage others to also take action – now.

    You already know of the Pickens’ Plan. By replacing natural gas operated plants with wind and solar, then putting that gas into our vehicles could very well be a major step if all of the American energy companies start getting with the program.

    Pickens is not doing his west Texas project out of the kindness of his heart. He is too smart. He’ll make money for sure, but at eighty years old, he is just making sure his heirs are well taken care of.

    When I was taking alternative energy classes in college one professor made a calculated guess and told us that oil would be scarce in 50 years and would be a motive for major world wars. He made the statement in 1978. He just may have been right on the money.

    You keep up the informative blog – we need it. Stay in good health!

    Fred the fan.

  177. Jim – That sounds like a win-win situation if I ever heard one. If you can turn something that costs money and requires space into a source of fuel, how can that not be a good thing? Thanks for the info. I will continue to keep up on that program.

  178. Jim

    Bob –

    Thanks for sharing an example of the kind of new technology we need to deal with our energy problem.

    Here’s another idea that’s beyond the drawing board and about to go on-line.

    A company has announced plans to build one of the first commercial-scale facilities for converting municipal solid waste – the trash that haulers do not recycle or compost – into ethanol.

    The plant will be located 10 miles east of Reno, Nevada and is slated to start operating in early 2010. It will produce 10.5 million gallons of ethanol a year by processing nearly 90,000 tons of municipal solid waste otherwise destined for the landfill. The ethanol would then be sold to refiners to mix as an additive into gasoline.

    This company plans to build as many as 10 plants within five years with a total ethanol production capacity of up to 500 million gallons. The facility near Reno will eventually be the smallest plant in Fulcrum’s fleet.

    Details are available at:

    The ethanol output from the Reno plant is relatively small, but If it become practical to convert trash into fuel instead of spending money to bury garbage in a landfill, this seems like a potential win-win situation.

  179. agesilaus

    LOL, have you ever smelled butanol? It might be significant drawback.