GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS BoatU.S. SPECIAL REPORT BY RYCK LYDECKER
alCohol & Boat engines, is there another Way?
Federal law says the nation must increase its “biofuel” capacity
dramatically in the next decade, but does it have to be ethanol?
A veteran Mako 19 powered by a conventional two-stroke outboard, one of three boats used for isobutanol fuel testing.
At zero-dark-hundred in an undisclosed marina somewhere on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, two men noise- lessly transfer gear from the covered bed of a pickup truck to the cockpit of the non-descript center-console outboard at dockside. Quickly they stow hoses, canisters, and meters, plus vinyl pouches
that sprout tubing with stainless-steel fittings. two others silently remove unmarked barrels from a storage shed, wheeling them toward the boat.
Finally the men whisk a secret weapon known only as “MPSS” aboard, a white metal
cabinet the size of a large ice chest. Laid flat on the cockpit sole, it’s below sight from curious
eyes that may pass in another boat, or attempt to spy from shore.
Once loaded, two of the team begin rigging the MPSS to its attendant vinyl bag, the hoses
tracing umbilicals to the exhaust system of the 175-hp Evinrude E-Tec engine on the transom.
It takes more time to rig a battery of sensors — from water temperature and barometric pressure, to fuel flow and boat speed — but eventually and with little fanfare, the boat heads
for a quiet creek that shall remain nameless. Once on the unmarked, one-mile-course track,
the boat begins a repetitious navigation routine — up and back, up and back — as team
members monitor the MPSS, now sucking samples of engine exhaust into the pouch.
This being midweek, such boring, back-and-forth operation at various speeds apparently
goes unnoticed from shore. Two minutes at 5,000 rpm, five more at 4,000, and so on,
through a five-stage protocol from wide-open throttle to idle speed in neutral. After several
laps, one crewmember switches out the portable fuel tank while another screws tubes
from a fresh pouch into the MPSS. The routine repeats, lap after measured lap, until the
technical appetites of both pouches are satiated and the boat heads back to the dock.
There, while two men unload equipment
and reconfigure the boat to its inconspicuous, everyday appearance, the other two
whisk the pouches into the truck. They head
south where a late-night rendezvous with a
gas-mass spectrometer awaits at an undisclosed lab three hours away. Anticipation
in the truck is electric. The secrets the two
pouches hold could do no less than revolutionize recreational boating.
All melodrama, intrigue, and clandestine-op
allusions aside, the description above is a
slightly embellished version of how three
marine-industry engineers put together their
equipment and expertise last June in an
effort to solve one piece of the conundrum
that a potential ethanol increase in gasoline
poses for boat-engine manufacturers and the
boat owners who use their products. After
a series of on-the-water evaluations and
laboratory tests conducted over the summer with, not ethanol, but another alcohol
derivative called isobutanol, it turns out they
may be on to something.
“We know that increasing ethanol content in gasoline to 15 percent wouldn’t be
good for modern marine engines, which
today are designed to run on 10-percent
ethanol,” reported John McKnight, environmental and safety compliance director for the National Marine Manufacturers
Association, who helped organize the on-the-water evaluations. “Ethanol adds oxygen, making engines run hotter, so if they
increase the amount to 15 percent in the
Photo: emily mCknight