After German drivers expressed fear that the new E10 biofuel could damage car engines, tests conducted by a Finnish automobile magazine show that the biofuel also slightly increases fuel consumption.
According to laboratory tests conducted by Tekniikan Maailma, a Finnish magazine, E10 increases fuel consumption by 3% on average compared to an earlier version, 98 E5.
Given that there is currently a difference of around 3% (€0.05) between the prices of the two fuels in Finland, both end up being equally expensive for consumers, the magazine notes.
95 E10 is a mixture of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline, while 98 E5 is blended with only 5% bioethanol.
The tests have triggered a heated debate in Finland. The country's consumer agency (Kuluttajavirasto) refutes the test results, arguing that increases in consumption higher than 1.5-2% are "not technically possible". The agency further stressed that total fuel consumption depends primarily on driving conditions, driving style and journey length.
The development comes just 10 days after Germany hosted a crisis 'summit' over the E10 biofuel, after many German motorists decided to boycott the new fuel over fears it could damage car engines.
Properties of ethanol in spotlight
For the Finnish car magazine, the consumption difference between ethanol-blended fuels and gasoline is a result of the fact that the energy content of ethanol is nearly 40% less than that of gasoline. This means that using ethanol fuel increases consumption by the same amount, explains the magazine.
Tekniikan Maailma says consumers have also drawn the publication's attention to difficulties with starting cars, as well as their functioning.
It then explains that alcohol acts an aggressive substance in the car's fuel system and might harm its rubber and plastic sections, as well as oxidise and corrode its metal components.
The full report on the consumption differences between 95 E10 and 98 E5 will be published in the magazine's next issue (30 March).
Market for corn surplus production
The Finnish debate on the introduction of E10 fuel has sparked a wider reflection around biofuels.
E10 is being introduced at gas stations around the EU as part of efforts to implement the bloc's law requiring a 10% share of biofuels to be used in transport by 2020.
But Pekka Kauppi, a university professor in Helsinki, shed light on other reasons for the biofuel boom. In an opinion piece for the country's biggest daily Helsingin Sanomat, published earlier this month, Kauppi noted that biofuels were not being introduced for climate change reasons only. An alternative reason lies in the United States, where corn production per hectare nearly doubled between 1970 and 2000.
As corn prices began to reach unsatisfactorily low levels for producers, the US created demand for the commodity by directing overproduction towards use in fuels, Kauppi writes, noting that decisions on introducing biofuels were first taken in the US at the turn of the millennium, after which the EU followed suit.
The introduction of biofuels on both sides of the Atlantic was successfully marketed as part of a global policy to fight climate change. But scientists Sampo Soimakallio and Ilkka Savolainen from the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) question the climatic benefits of E10 in an opinion piece analysing the sustainability criteria of biofuels, such as their contribution to CO2 emissions, deforestation or food security.
After over two years of studies on biofuel sustainability, the European Commission is set to table in summer 2011 an EU strategy to tackle unwanted side-effects of biofuel production.