When my friend said, "Octane," I felt a little like Benjamin Braddock being lectured about plastics in the movie The Graduate.
I'd bumped into this friend at SAE. We chatted about several topics, including the process by which the government will set fuel economy standards for the 2017 to 2025 model years and if it might be difficult for the industry to meet them.
Since I had just returned from a week in Washington, talking to environmental and industry lobbyists about that very issue, I felt pretty darned in-the-know.
Perhaps sensing that I was a little cocky, my friend asked if I knew the dirty little secret.
I shook my head ... and almost certainly gave him a blank look.
"Octane," he said.
My friend then gave me the kind of discourse that only an engineer can give.
I nodded my head ... and almost certainly gave him a glazed look.
Here's the translation for nonengineers: It is increasingly difficult to develop high-efficiency engines that improve fuel economy and reduce hydrocarbon emissions. That's because high-efficiency engines require more octane. But refiners sell different gasoline blends with a wide variety of octane ratings, forcing engineers to develop powerplants that can function on the lowest octane rating available.
Coincidentally, at the SAE meeting in 1970, Ed Cole, then president of General Motors, pleaded with Big Oil to "get the lead out" of gasoline so automakers could use catalytic converters to meet U.S. emissions standards.
Ultimately lead was banned. So were other additives that boost octane.
That brings us to ethanol. Adding ethanol can boost octane a little -- but there are issues, including how much ethanol can be used safely in older engines.
OK, I get it. We need more octane in gasoline.
But what does that have to do with plastics, Mrs. Robinson?