As you pull into your local gas station, pop open your tank and slide the nozzle in, if you’re like most people, the choice between 87, 89 or 93 octane gasoline is determined by the price. 87 is the cheapest, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission explicitly says that unless your car’s owner’s manual calls for it, you’re better off skipping the high octane options. So why are more and more professional racecar drivers choosing the much higher, 113 octane ethanol? When it comes to premium, high-performance fuels – and high-stakes situations like professional racing – there’s more to it than the owner’s manual.

In 2005, the Indy Racing League – home of the Indianapolis 500 – used 100 percent methanol in their tanks. The fuel worked well and was more efficient than straight gasoline, but IRL officials saw room for improvement. In 2006, they blended 10 percent ethanol into the methanol, which was then changed to 100 percent ethanol for the 2007 season.

Engine basics

Timing is key in today’s high-compression engines – both in racecars and our humble highway vehicles. On a basic level, the power to move our vehicles is generated by injecting fuel and air into the cylinders, then compressing the mixture with the upstroke of the pistons before the spark plug ignites it, causing an explosion that forces the pistons down. To maximize power and fuel efficiency, the mixture must be ignited at precisely the right time. If the timing is off, the driver will often hear a metallic “pinging” referred to as knocking. Heavy or persistent knocking can lead to engine damage.

During IRL events, each piston can travel more than a mile up and down in its cylinder per minute. Octane ratings measure a fuel’s ability to resist engine knock: the higher the octane, the less knocking. Among other benefits, the IRL switch to ethanol in 2007 led to a reduction in pre-ignition, or knocking and pinging.

The race continues

In 2011, NASCAR partnered with American Ethanol to promote its use of Sunoco Green E15. Sunoco Green E15 is a 98 octane fuel blend specifically engineered for high-performance engines. Named for its green color, this specialized NASCAR fuel contains 15% ethanol by weight. The fuel is used in NASCAR’s three national series: The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR Nationwide Series, and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. By March of 2015 NASCAR surpassed 7 million miles of racing using an American Ethanol blend. That’s the equivalent of almost 30 trips from the earth to the moon or 281 laps around the earth.

Ethanol provides high quality, high octane for exceptional engine performance and reduced emissions. As a biofuel, ethanol is completely renewable and is better for our environment. It reduces greenhouse emissions by 59%. The switch to ethanol also allowed Indy cars to increase efficiency: they now have 22-gallon tanks instead of 30-gallon tanks. That efficiency reduced fuel use across the sport by 20,000 gallons in one year.

The preferred fuel

Jonathan Olmscheid is an accountant at Minnesota-based Christianson & Associates where he works with ethanol plants and other agribusiness clients on Renewable Identification Number consulting. He also races the US Ethanol – a 350 horsepower modified stock car around dirt tracks on the WISSOTA Midwest Modifieds racing circuit. Olmscheid fuels his car with 98% ethanol (E98). Technically, pure ethanol is nearly impossible to obtain, and illegal without paying substantial taxes that date back to prohibition. The other 2 percent is denaturant.

“I want people to know that if you can run a motor like mine on ethanol, it will work for everyday driving,” said Olmscheid during the 2015 Fuel Ethanol Workshop. “I had the general manager of an ethanol plant sit across from me and tell me he didn’t want to put ethanol in his flex fuel vehicle, so there’s a misconception in the general public that ethanol is going to hurt their engine.”

The higher octane rating of ethanol elevates the overall octane of the fuel it is blended into, yet the petroleum industry has yet to express a willingness to increase the U.S. minimum octane level. Automakers design engines to achieve maximum efficiency with the cheapest, most readily available fuel source for consumers. Today, that fuel is usually 87 octane gasoline with 10 percent ethanol. Meanwhile, petroleum refiners readily admit that they adjust their blend stocks to produce gasoline that meets minimum octane requirements when blended with ethanol. (In other words, they can use lower cost gasoline fuels because ethanol improves its quality.)

“If we can fix the misconceptions about ethanol, I think the industry as a whole will be great,” says Olmscheid.

Be it in the fuel for race cars, or for more humble vehicles that run on the road, ethanol is a growing industry that, with the right support, could soon spread its wings and fly.

Kim Bertz

Kim brings over 7 years of industry experience at Novozymes, partnering with our customer facing team to commercialize biological solutions that enable customers to achieve their production goals. Her 20 years of Sales and Marketing experience combined with first-hand knowledge of corn production on her family’s Midwest grain operation, gives her a broad perspective to producer, product conversion and enhancement, and consumer needs.