While gasoline engines have evolved in recent years, the efficiency of ethanol-powered engines has fallen, say specialists at a BIOEN-FAPESP event (Fabio Pozzebom/ABr)
New tax regime for the automotive industry expected to stimulate technology for more efficient ethanol engines
November 07, 2012
By Elton Alisson
Agência FAPESP – The new tax regime for the automotive industry announced by the Federal Government on October 4 is expected to incentivize development of technologies for increased efficiency of ethanol-powered engines in Brazil. Development in this field has stopped and even regressed in recent years according to researchers participating in the International Workshop on Applications of Ethanol for Automotive Engines held on October 4 at FAPESP.
Promoted by the FAPESP Program for Research on Bioenergy (BIOEN
), the event’s objective was to debate the current state of research in Brazil and abroad on internal combustion engines—especially those that use biofuels such as ethanol—and to identify challenges in basic and applied science and in engineering related to the field that could fall within the scope of BIOEN.
Established in 2008, BIOEN has five divisions: Biomass for Bioenergy (focusing on sugarcane); Biofuel Manufacturing Processes; Biorefineries and Alcohol Chemistry; Ethanol Applications for Automotive Engines: internal combustion engines and fuel cells; and Research on Sustainability, Socioeconomic and Environmental Impact and Land Use.
During the event, specialists from Brazil and abroad presented the results of research on combustion engines that burn ethanol and discussed possible areas and opportunities for collaborative research on biofuel engines involving universities, research institutions and automotive and auto parts industries.
According to the researchers, while the technology leading to improvements in the efficiency of gasoline-powered engines in Brazil evolved a great deal, development on ethanol-powered engine technology has been in “neutral” or even “reverse” in recent years.
“We aren’t doing what should be done with ethanol, which has the potential to be much more efficient than gasoline. Today, it is less efficient because those adapting the motors aren’t making the necessary efforts,” said Francisco Nigro, professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the Polytechnic School of the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and researcher in the alternative fuels department at The São Paulo State Institute for Technological Research (IPT), to Agência FAPESP.
Nigro said that at the beginning of the National Alcohol Program (Pró-Álcool) in 1978, one of the main objectives of developing alcohol-powered engine technology in Brazil was increased energy efficiency, and Technology Support Centers (CATs) were created to help companies in the conversion market to convert engines that originally operated on gasoline to run on hydrated alcohol. At that time, the energy efficiency of ethanol engines was up to 16% higher than that of gas engines.
In the 1980s, when the assemblers began to manufacture cars that ran on alcohol and technological development began to be determined by pollution emissions control requirements, ethanol yields fell. As oil prices began to fall in the 1990s, the automotive industry once again began to invest in new technology for gas engines, resulting in a reduced energy-efficiency advantage for ethanol-powered vehicles.
Since requirements for the use of three-way catalytic converters were instated in 1997 as part of the Environmental Ministry’s Proconve Vehicle Emissions Control Program, the energy advantage of ethanol-powered vehicles was reduced to approximately 4%. It has remained at this level even after the release of flexible-fuel vehicles to the market in 2003.
“We are producing flex-fuel vehicles that are less efficient when they run on ethanol than when they run on gasoline. Improved engineering and calibration of ethanol motors is fundamental because new public policy to reduce CO2 emissions from cars will increase pressure on ethanol,” said Nigro.
The new tax regime offers tax incentives for assemblers with factories in Brazil who invest in R&D for the production of safer, more fuel-efficient and cleaner-running vehicles. The companies that will benefit from the incentives will be those that can meet the goal of producing cars that get 17.26 kilometers to the liter of gasoline and 11.96 kilometers to the liter of ethanol by 2017, similar to the goals set by European nations. The average Brazilian car produced today gets 14 km/liter of gasoline and 9.7 km/liter of ethanol.
“This new legislation for reduced fuel consumption in Brazil will incentivize multinational automakers operating here to bring their most sophisticated gas consumption technologies, such as Gasoline Direct Injection and smaller engines with turbo, from overseas where they are developed,” said Nigro.
“This will most likely widen the gap between gasoline and ethanol-powered engines in Brazil because vehicles are developed the world over to use gasoline, and they will also have to be well-developed for ethanol here in Brazil. This should lead to new technology for ethanol efficiency,” he noted.
When the Brazilian subsidiaries of automotive and auto parts industries located here have a technological problem, they usually call on their overseas headquarters to solve them. However, in the case of ethanol-powered engines, because the assemblers do not use 100% hydrated or anhydrous alcohol in car motors sold overseas, the Brazilian plants cannot count on the home offices to resolve certain problems.
To seek out local solutions for the technological challenges faced in the day-to-day operation of ethanol engines, in July, a consortium of Brazilian automotive companies started up a research project together with universities in São Paulo State to increase understanding of the tribology challenges (friction and wear) of flex-fuel engines.
Mahle, Petrobras, Fiat, Volkswagen, Renault, the Universidade de São Paulo (USP), Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) and the Universidade Federal do ABC (UFABC) are participating in the consortium. It is funded by FAPESP through its Cooperative Technology Innovation Research Support Program (PITE), which finances collaborative research between universities and research institutions and companies.
“We perceived that there is a series of problems unique to ethanol engines that would be better dealt with by universities and research institutions than by companies, which carry out a series of actions to resolve them, but have their limitations,” said Eduardo Tomanik, R&D consultant for Mahle.
According to Tomanik, the initiative is the first of its type in Brazil, where research consortiums in the precompetitive knowledge phase—the phase in which technologies resulting in commercial advantage still haven’t been discovered—are uncommon.
“We hope to gain structured knowledge with this project that will allow the participating companies to address problems on an industrial scale. For example: which chemical reactions occur in oil when it is contaminated with ethanol and wears out parts?” he said.
Another objective of the project is to train specialized labor to develop research within the Brazilian automotive industry. “Even though it involves a great deal of technology, hardly any research is carried out in the automotive industry. We intend to reduce this gap,” said Tomanik.
According to FAPESP Scientific Director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, aside from this project, FAPESP is also funding more than 100 studies related to improving the efficiency of ethanol-powered engines, “which is an extremely relevant subject for Brazil and especially São Paulo State.”
“Of the energy used in Brazil today, 47% comes from renewable resources, 18% from sugarcane. For São Paulo State, where 38% of the energy used today comes from sugarcane, the ethanol question and the development of more efficient biofuel-powered engines is even more important,” said Brito Cruz.