If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Ethanol - evil stuff

One of the ways of making motor vehicles 'greener' is, apparently, to dilute the petrol they use with ethanol. Ethanol can be created from maize or sugar cane, and is supposedly carbon-neutral, so it doesn't contribute to that nasty Global Warming Climate Change Disruption we are seeing so much of these days. In the US, many petrol companies are selling E10 fuel (10% ethanol) and the UK is currently moving towards E5 (5%). The ultimate is said to be E85, where only 15% of the fuel you put in your tank is actually dino juice. And they are doing it by stealth. Ethanol content up to 10% does not have to be labelled as such in the UK, and in fact I get the feeiling that petrol companies are encouraged not to label it at all. Heaven forfend that we knew what we were buying and were able to make an informed choice! And how unlike the food labelling regulations, where the makers are forced to list every last ingredient for 'consumer education'.

The Government and the green lobby insist that ethanol in fuel is harmless, and that it causes no problems with modern vehicles. The evidence is that this is far from the truth. I have done quite a lot of reading around this recently, and there are a number of issues which come up time and time again:
  • Ethanol dissolves the resin binders in fibreglass over time. Motorcycles with fibreglass tanks start running badly and eventually stop. Quantities of sludge are found in the fuel system, which appears to be the inside of the petrol tank making a break for freedom.
  • Ethanol can distort plastic fuel tanks. There are a number of owners on the Triumph forum that I read who have taken off the fuel tank only to find that they cannot get it back on because it is longer than the fixings on the bike. Effectively, the ethanol has made the tank change shape. This is a worry to me, as my Sprint has a plastic tank, and I do all my own servicing, so taking the tank off will be a regular occurrence.
  • Ethanol absorbs water. If parts of the fuel system are steel, this can start to rust from the inside. In severe cases (say where a bike is left for several months with the same fuel in the tank), the ethanol absorbs enough water for phase separation to take place, and the bottom of the tank is pure water. The bike will not run on water.
And, of course, ethanol contains less energy than petrol, so your car or bike will not run as well, and will use more fuel in doing so ... hang on, that's not the idea, is it?

The situation in the US is more severe than in the UK, as the quantity of ethanol is greater in most fuel supplied. In fact, it has reached the stage of consumers taking out a class action suit, reported here.
The lawsuit claims the tank material is incompatible with the fuel and distorts over a period of time, usually several months, during which time the tank can come loose on its mountings, swell enough to interfere with the steering on full lock and leak through the fuel pump mounting.

The second and potentially far more damaging claim in the suit is that Ducati should reasonably have known about the problem but nevertheless continued to sell motorcycles with allegedly unsafe fuel tanks. It states that this amounts to unfair, unlawful and fraudulent business practice which has led to injury and financial loss.
Personally, I would rather avoid such problems by buying only fuel which is ethanol-free. This is possible in the States, thanks to websites such as pure-gas.org and buyrealgas.com which maintain databases of fuel stations that guarantee ethanol-free fuel. But over here there is no such organisation. We Brits will shrug and say "well, that's the way it is, innit?" and carry on as before. There is no anger - or even awareness of the problem. (In case you think it is just confined to bikes, there is also huge anxiety amongst owners of older cars, and also boats. If a distorted motorcycle tank is a problem, imagine how concerned you would be if the fuel tank of your boat was made of fibreglass - and was not a separate component but was moulded as part of the hull. How do you fix that?)

There are other, ethical, objections to ethanol. One study suggests that producing a gallon of ethanol takes six times the fossil energy contained in the final product. Another says that, using irrigated corn, it takes 1200 gallons of water to produce just one gallon of ethanol. Not surprisingly, the Greens are split over whether running vehicles on ethanol is even a good idea. And that's before you consider the ethics of using a food crop to produce fuel for vehicles when there are people dying of starvation elsewhere in the world, just so that SUV drivers can feel good about filling up when they drive the school run.

A trawl of the fuel companies' websites gives very little hard information. Most just say, if they mention ethanol at all, that they are complying with the Government's plan to move everyone to E5 or E10 by 2011 or 2012. But I heard a rumour that Murco were dragging their feet a little, and supplying ethanol-free petrol on most of their forecourts. So I wrote to them, and here is their reply:

I can confirm that Murco does not provide petrol which includes Ethanol at this moment in time, however you can expect the industry as a whole to be E5 (5% Ethanol) by 2013-2014 which the government has requested.

Any Murco garage in the south west / east of England and Wales will be Ethanol free but we do supply the majority of our garages in the Midlands and North West from a non-Murco terminals so I would expect these garages to have Ethanol in the petrol but please double check with the site before fuelling your car/motorcycle.

I hope this is of some help.


Chris Blake

Commercial Marketing Manager
Murco Petroleum Ltd.
Westerleigh Terminal, Oakley Green, Westerleigh, Bristol. BS37 8QE
Fortunately I have a Murco garage only a couple of miles away from me, and it will be little inconvenience to fill up there as opposed to my usual place.

I like ethanol, don't get me wrong, but only if it comes in a bottle with something like 'Balvenie' or 'Aberlour' on the label. For the bike, it's Murco wherever possible from now on.

And if you see the legend 'E5' or 'E10' on the pump when you go to fill up, Just Say No, kids. Not that you are likely to see such a notice. The Government have decreed that they don't have to tell you.


  1. "And that's before you consider the ethics of using a food crop to produce fuel for vehicles when there are people dying of starvation elsewhere in the world,"

    Spot on! It's an obscenity.

  2. Thanks for the link to a very interesting site. I hadn't seen that one in my meanderings. Are the wheels really falling off the green wagon? We can hope.

  3. Richard.

    Isn't there a typo in your article?

    Surely it should it be Methanol, not Ethanol?? ;-)


    The fun starts at about 2:25 and lasts less than 5 secs.

  4. I don't think you can "grow" Methanol like you can Ethanol. But then it's been nearly 40 years since I last set foot in a chemistry lab...

    "The fun lasts less than 5 secs" - Ye Gods!!!

  5. Methanol makes you blind - or go very fast. Or both. Ethanol just gets you pissed.

    Apparently they are chemically quite similar, and it takes a bit of know-how to tell one from the other. Which is why you naver take a drink from an unlabelled bottle at a party.

    And I still can't see the point of dragsters.


Comment is free, according to C P Scott, so go for it. Word verification is turned off for the time being. Play nicely.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...