Components and Production Systems
November 15, 2019 - In July 2019, Fiat celebrated a historic milestone in Brazil – the 40th anniversary of the launch of the world’s first ethanol-fueled car. 2019 also marked the Company’s renewed commitment to the development of new technologies for the future of mobility and biofuel which, in Brazil, is derived from sugarcane.
“Ethanol has been, is and will always be important for FCA. It’s strategic for the Company and it has a very important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions”, stated João Irineu Medeiros, FCA’s Director of Vehicle Safety & Regulatory Compliance for Latin America. “We started 40 years ago with a carburetor system and today we are working on development of a turbo system, direct injection and a host of other alternatives that will be incorporated in ethanol-fueled engines to further improve performance over gasoline engines”, continues Medeiros, confirming the importance of sugarcane-derived fuel for the new engines being developed by FCA for the Brazilian market. In 2018, Brazilians consumed 38.3 billion liters of gasoline and 19.4 billion liters of ethanol and the share of biofuel in the energy matrix is set to continue growing.
FCA’s pioneering of the world’s first mass-produced ethanol-fueled car dates back to 1976, when the Company began development of an ethanol version of the Fiat 147. Not coincidentally, that same year the gasoline-powered Fiat 147 was launched in Brazil at the São Paulo Motor Show and, alongside the gasoline version, Fiat also displayed a prototype of the ethanol-fueled version of the 147 which had already been tested over tens of thousands of kilometers.
In 1978, Fiat developed a new 1.3L, 62hp engine with 11.5 kgfm of torque which, during testing, turned out to be more suitable for ethanol than the 147’s original 1050-cylinder gasoline engine. In September the same year, a 100% ethanol-powered Fiat 147 equipped with the new 1.3L engine performed what would become the definitive test for the first Brazilian biofuel engine: a 12-day, 6,800-kilometer trip across the country, averaging over 500 kilometers daily, and with climate variations of more than 30 degrees. The ethanol-powered Fiat 147, the world’s first mass-produced ethanol-fueled car, was then launched on July 5, 1979.
Development of the ethanol engine was no simple task and many technical challenges were solved along the way. Since the use of sugarcane fuel was new, several car components had to evolve rapidly and manufacturers had to develop many innovative solutions. The evolution of the injection system, for example, improved the air and fuel mix in the engine. As a result, there were significant gains in performance, while reducing consumption at the same time.
Engineering know-how acquired in Brazil through the development ethanol engines proved extremely valuable in the biofuel era of the 2000s. In fact, a company owned by Magneti Marelli (at the time part of Fiat Group) developed the Flexfuel technology and, together with Fiat, launched the 1.0 flex engines for the Mille Fire, the Palio Fire and the Siena Fire. “By 2005 our competitors only had bi-fuel options for the largest cylinder displacement engines. We were the first to operate in lower range cars,” recalls Ronaldo Ávila, FCA Product Engineering supervisor.
Ethanol is crucial for Brazil, not only to meet the strict international standards for CO2 emissions but also to take advantage of the country’s sugarcane resources and leverage on the investments made in this technology over the last 40 years. “Ethanol is strategic to the evolution of eco-friendly mobility”, says Medeiros.
There is a lot of talk about electrification as a solution to the problem of car emissions, but electricity also generates emissions when it’s produced. To really benefit from vehicle electrification, countries need to have clean energy matrices. After all, what is the use of simply transferring vehicle emissions to coal or oil powerplants?
This is where ethanol’s main advantage lies, according to Medeiros. “When considered within the well-to-wheel concept (in this case ‘from field-to-wheel’), ethanol is highly efficient from the point of view of emissions. This is because sugarcane – in the plant development cycle, transformation into fuel and burning in ethanol fuel engines – is about 80% CO2 renewable”, he explains.
These advantages will only continue to improve with the new technologies to increase the energy value of biofuel and engine efficiency already under development. “The agro-energy chain is focused on producing fuels more efficiently and with a stable and predictable supply. The automotive sector, and FCA in particular, are committed to increasing the energy efficiency of ethanol combustion”, says Medeiros.
Fiat pioneered the mass production of ethanol-powered cars in Brazil and around the world. It also stimulated the evolution and use of this biofuel, with the introduction of Flexfuel technology. Now FCA is gearing up for yet another technological breakthrough: the construction of a new, high-efficiency ethanol-powered turbo engine.
The installation of a GSE Turbo engine plant at the Fiat Assembly Plant in Betim (Minas Gerais, Brazil) will be the springboard for accelerating the development of a revolutionary propulsion system, currently referred to as the E4.
FCA Powertrain Director for Latin America, Aldo Marangoni, explains that the Company is using many innovative and also patented technologies in this project. “This is an experimental project where we are expanding and improving our knowledge on the potential of biofuel. The results already achieved are very exciting”, he says.
The use of ethanol in the propulsion energy matrix is a competitive advantage for Brazil, which has the ideal technology and climate conditions for the production of ethanol from sugarcane, as well as a highly efficient fuel distribution network. Ethanol is an alternative compatible with the CO2 reduction objectives of its fleet, since most of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere during combustion is captured back into the sugarcane plant growth process during photosynthesis. This contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in a well-to-wheel perspective.
Currently gasoline can offer about 30% more energy than ethanol. FCA is working to reduce this gap by implementing new concepts and technologies, some of which have already been patented. The first areas of improvement in the evolution of ethanol processes are: calibration, cold start and air-fuel ratio. With these advances, ethanol will continue to gain more relevance and become a more strategic fuel option for the evolution of eco-friendly mobility.
Reducing the amount of water in the fuel – as well as the introduction of second-generation ethanol – will be the second step. Subsequently, direct injection, turbocharging and thermodynamic improvement will play a leading role in FCA’s new high-efficiency ethanol engines. Hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles will also be decisive in the ethanol evolution process, where we predict that the use of sugarcane derivatives will be used in fuel cells, and ethanol will decompose to obtain hydrogen.