A Question of Ethanol

There’s lots of conversation going on about the plans to include Ethanol in fuel in the UK, and what the effects of that are on bikes, particularly older models. There are quite a few myths and legends floating around about the subject, and of course, ethanol has been used significantly in fuel in other countries for quite a few years. This info comes from the Vintage Sports Car and Vintage Motorcycle Clubs. It’s fairly wordy stuff but well worth a read.

    Department of Transport Talks on Ethanol in Petrol

The Department continues to receive a significant quantity of correspondence expressing concerns about the potential impact of ethanol in petrol on historic vehicles. Although some of this correspondence relates to known problems (e.g. compatibility of fuel tanks made from certain types of fibreglass) many of the concerns appear to arise from misunderstandings of legislative requirements (e.g. reports that supply of petrol containing no more than 5% ethanol will be prohibited from 2013) or confusion about the technical implications of ethanol blends (e.g. suggestions that ethanol’s hydroscopic nature makes drainage of vehicle’s fuel systems essential during short-term storage).

Ethanol or no?The Department arranged a meeting with historic vehicle and fuel industry stakeholders to clarify some of these points and facilitate exchange of information on availability of low or zero ethanol content fuel.

The subsequent meeting was attended by club representatives. The AA was also represented, and the meeting was well attended by oil company representatives who I gather were generally helpful and sympathetic.

One of the key messages which DfT were keen to put across was that E10 is definitely not going to be mandated in 2013. It was widely believed that E10 would become the norm in 2013, but this was stated to be an error or myth. Up until the end of 2013 Super unleaded petrol (97 RON) sold at filling stations with more than 3 million litres per annum fuel throughput must contain no more than 5% ethanol (‘E5′).

It is a requirement of the Fuel Quality Directive that Member States’ legislation explicitly mandates that some E5 be available. The intent was to support operation of older vehicles if petrol containing 10% ethanol (E10) is introduced. This requirement may be academic in the UK as no E10 is currently supplied and biofuel targets for 2013/14 are set at the 5% level.

In fact, 10% ethanol is the MAXIMUM allowed at present under the EU Fuel Quality Directive, that seeks to reduce Green House Gas (GHG) by 6% over 2010 figures by 2020, but there is no minimum limit. Some 4 million vehicles in the UK vehicle parc are thought not compatible with E10. EN 228 is the European Industry Standard for Petrol. Any pumps dispensing E10 MUST be labelled and include the words “Not suitable For All Vehicles”.

In addition to mandatory requirements specified in regulation, more detailed specifications for petrol are defined in BS EN 228 which is a national (i.e. UK) implementation of the European industry standard EN 228:2008. This supplements regulatory requirements with standards on fuel stability, corrosivity, pump marking, winter volatility etc and sets out to ensure compatibility of vehicles and fuels. BS EN 228 specifies a maximum ethanol content of 5%.

At the PumpIt was confirmed that most super premium petrol (i.e. octane quality of 97(RON) or above) does not currently contain any ethanol.
In addition, some 95 RON fuels are supplied in UK without any ethanol content. The UK distribution network means that garages may get fuel from any of the refineries and the ethanol is added when the fuel is put into the tanker. This introduces an inconsistency such that not even the garage selling the fuel knows whether the fuel contains any ethanol, only that is has been supplied as compliant with BS EN 228 (max 5% ethanol and no minimum level).

The industry representatives agreed that there are almost certainly garages in UK that have never (since the introduction of ethanol recently) had a delivery of fuel containing ethanol but it might be almost impossible to confirm which ones they are or to guarantee that they will not have a delivery of fuel containing ethanol. So, it is not always easy to know exactly which forecourts are selling ethanol-free petrol and which are selling petrol with some added ethanol but buying 97 RON fuels in UK still represents the best chance of minimising or avoiding ethanol, albeit with a cost penalty (but maybe a performance advantage?).

Use of ethanol in fuel is not a new idea. Ethanol’s high octane rating and ability to be produced from local resources made it of interest from the earliest days of motoring and commercial petrol-ethanol blends were supplied in the UK from 1928-1968 with 10% or higher ethanol content. Brands included Cleveland Discol, and Cities Service KOOLMOTOR. Specifications on ethanol content of petrol were first introduced in industry standards (BS 4040 Leaded Petrol) in 1988 which specified a maximum 5% ethanol content. Subsequent standards (EN 228, BS 7800) also include this limit.
Ethanol was reintroduced in UK petrol at up to 5% content by some suppliers from 2002 so your car or bike may have run on fuel containing ethanol at any time between 1928-68 and 1988 until now!

The FBHVC are looking into the suggestion that they should collaborate with the oil industry to try to establish a more detailed and accurate picture of where ethanol-free super-premium petrol could be obtained for those interested in buying it.
This will only be a temporary respite as it is clear that ethanol is not going to go away, and that a sensible strategy is to learn to live with it. The Department summed up compatibility as follows:

* At current E5 blend levels

– Some fibreglass fuel tanks (mostly on motor cycles) are incompatible
– Some aftermarket fuel tank sealants are incompatible
– These would need to be replaced to run vehicles on E5

* If historic vehicles are to use future E10 blends

– Carburettor jets and needles may need changing
– Fuel hoses and seals may need replacing

* Alternative is to use ‘protection grade’ fuels (currently this means the 5% ethanol level)

The three-pronged approach advocated by the Federation is:

* Compatibility: move progressively to the use of compatible materials as this becomes necessary.
* Corrosion: employ a proven corrosion inhibitor in the fuel tank as a precautionary measure.
* Combustion: adjust mixture strength to counteract the leaning effect of ethanol in the blend and re-route fuel feed lines and/or employ baffles or other thermal barrier devices to reduce heat transfer from the engine to the liquid side of the fuel metering system on the vehicle remains a valid and common-sense approach to the potential problems of the use of fuels containing ethanol.

PumpsThe international organisation, FIVA, has submitted views to the European Commission on a consultation on the future infrastructure requirement to ensure the increased use of alternative fuels in the EU. The submission stated FIVA?s view that both traditional fuels and E5 must remain available on the market to ensure the continued use of historic vehicles because experience has also shown significant technical problems for historic vehicles by the use of E10 – with vehicles most likely to be affected being vehicles ten years old or older, carburettored vehicles and first generation direct spark ignition vehicles.

So, ethanol is here to stay and we all need to adapt, use additives, adjust mixtures, replace sensitive components etc etc etc. On the other hand, we may all have being putting ethanol in our tanks since 1988 and almost certainly since 2002. So, if it hasn’t broken yet, and if we can hang on to 5% maximum ethanol content fuels (the so-called protection grades) then we might just carry on as we are.

After this report was published, the following information was forwarded:

The author says ‘I have seen a couple of reports saying that E10 is ‘definitely not’ going to be introduced in 2013.
As indicated, UK targets for biofuel uptake are set at 5% for the 2013/14 financial year as an average across all petrol and diesel supplied. It is therefore correct to say that there is no necessity for suppliers to introduce E10.

There is though nothing to prevent fuel suppliers marketing E10 if they wish, so it is not possible to categorically say that no E10 will be marketed in 2013. However, as discussed at the meeting it is not expected that there will be a major shift to E10 (and any pumps dispensing E10 would have to be marked “Not suitable for all vehicles etc”).’

So, well, it’s coming. I hope this lot, though wordy as I said, answers some questions.