E10 safe in all petrol cars

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

California Mercedes Benz owners event 2011. [Mercedes Heritage]

Folklore shouldn’t stop progress: if a car works fine with today’s petrol from EU filling stations, it will work just fine with the new E10 petrol, writes James Cogan.

James Cogan is a policy analyst at Ethanol Europe, a European firm producing bioenergy for climate mitigation.

Every petrol engine ever made or sold in the USA runs on E10 petrol. E10 has been the standard fuel there for over 20 years without a single incident of a claim relating to it. E10 is where ethanol is blended into traditional petrol at 10% in order to cut climate-harming carbon emissions, cut particulates emissions, increase petrol quality, reduce dependency on oil imports and boost farm earnings.

Most of Europe already runs on E5. In Brazil, they use 27%-100% ethanol while E10 is the dominant blend in France, Belgium, Bulgaria and Finland. A quarter of planet Earth’s entire fleet of cars operates trouble-free in regions where E10 is standard.

So what’s at issue? Right now many EU Member States are considering the transition to E10 petrol as part of their climate programmes. In the process, they’re looking at a widely-referenced 2010 document by the association of the European motor industry ACEA, in which car makers list vehicle models that may or may not be “cleared” for E10.

This prompts fuel suppliers to worry they may be found liable if a driver ever makes a claim about engine trouble after the switch. This worry is holding up climate progress in transport. But there’s no need to worry. There’s a mountain of hard evidence showing that nothing will go wrong.

Two-thirds of car makers in the ACEA list indicate an old before date denoting when their cars become too old for comment, typically in the 1990s. These come to around 5% of Europe’s petrol cars.

BMW, Volkswagen, Hyundai and all American makers are among those that give the thumbs up for all their cars no matter how old, and in fact as far back as 1979 the US makers announced that use of E10 would have no effect on their warranties.

No differences between EU and the US

Fortunately, for old cars not “cleared” by ACEA, the news is excellent. Being old actually gives peace-of-mind to drivers, because that massive real-world experience of E10 in North America in all its 250 million cars over two decades, amounts to a conclusive demonstration that all old cars run perfectly fine on E10.

There are no differences in materials or technologies between the USA and European vehicles so the conclusion applies equally in both markets.

A third of car makers indicate a handful of engine types, typically 10-20 years old, which are expressly not cleared for E10, and these could amount to fifty or a hundred cars per EU region. There are no explanations given but it is understood that procedural rather than real technical limitations account for it.

Technical incompatibility could only be due to gaskets made from polyurethane, a material which exhibits a degree incompatibility with E10 in the laboratory and which was used in some engines in the past. With fuel system gaskets only the tiniest part of the gasket surface comes into contact with fuel and no issues have ever been encountered in real life.

But the technical detail is irrelevant. Because no matter what the technology or materials, they’ve all been extensively used in North America just as in Europe, and the same conclusion can be drawn as can be drawn about old cars: no car, with or without polyurethane, has ever been known to exhibit problems resulting from E10. Nor are there any known laboratory or bench tests which have shown up engine issues with E10.

Indeed when tests are done to investigate the effects of new fuels on old vehicles in the USA, E10 is used as the control fuel, i.e. the blend known for sure to be safe. E10 is also Europe’s official test fuel while the International Council on Clean Transportation treats E10 as the baseline safe blend for all petrol engines.

Low-cost climate measure

Accompanying the real world experience of E10, a vast body of research work has emerged from the USA EPA, the Coordination Research Council of oil and auto producers, the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Kettering University Advanced Engine Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army confirming that vehicles operate on E10 without harm from an emissions standpoint, with no loss in performance and no impact on safety.

In 2012 Germany’s federal motoring organisation ADAC carried out a search for examples of E10 compatibility incidents and found none.

A similar process is now underway for E15 in the USA which has been approved in all cars made from 2001 onwards, regardless of what was written in carmakers’ original warranties.

No one can blame ACEA or Fuels Europe (the oil association) for being conservative in their policy on fuel changes, so it’s up to society to make the judgement call and move forward. North America made that judgement call 20 years ago and continues year after year to make the same call, on the basis that there have been no detrimental effects from use of ethanol in transportation.

In terms of renewable energy, introducing E10 is the equivalent to taking over 10 million of Europe’s 150 million petrol cars off the road while cutting EU carbon emissions by 20 million tonnes.  It can cut exhaust pipe particulates emissions by around 20% in the petrol fleet and mitigate reductions in double-counted used cooking oil and palm oil in the diesel fleet.

E10 using conventional European ethanol is the lowest cost climate action measure there is in transport and comes with no added cost to the consumer and no adverse impacts on land use, food security or the environment.

E10 works in all petrol vehicles. It’s the low hanging fruit of climate progress in Europe’s road fleet.

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