E10 vehicle fuel – beware the law of unintended consequences

E5 will move to E1001/03/2021. From September 2021, UK fuel stations will be selling E10 bio-ethanol fuel both petrol and diesel. This will replace the E5 fuel now sold at most pumps.

E10 unleaded fuel contains up to 10 % plant-based bio-ethanol. It has been experimented with before, but caused problems for both individual vehicle owners and industry. Which is why at the moment E5 labelled pumps containing up to 5 % bio-ethanol are the norm.

However, regardless of some motorists’ concerns and those of certain motoring organisations, Ukgov seems to have accepted the lobbying of the fuel distribution and ethanol industries and set E10 fuel as the future standard grade for petrol and diesel. Motorists have had issues with E10 before. Reports have emerged of problems with poor fuel economy, blocked injectors, irregular and inefficient running of engines, and the consequent problems, i.e. greater CO2 emissions and higher air pollution.

Given these disadvantages, I’m given to wonder what kind of people are in charge of policy at the Ministry of Transport. They seem unable to distinguish between theoretical modelling data and actual results from the way vehicles are driven in the real world. But if we are to be saddled with the consequences of lack of sense from these individuals, what can we expect?

Likely problems

– While in laboratory testing ethanol burns without significant particulate emissions, it can sometimes add to exhaust toxity, which will be an issue in built-up areas. So more air pollution in the cities.
– Reduction in fuel economy is a well-known issue, with reductions in fuel efficiency ranging from six to 11.5 per cent. Larger-engined vehicles appear to suffer less. Which could motivate motorists to buy a larger-engined car to compensate.
– Higher fuel consumption will mean higher CO2 emissions , possibly by up to 11 per cent. You wish to Save the Planet? Which one?
– Ethanol is a strong solvent, which if not mixed correctly in the fuel can attack many parts of the fuel system including components made from zinc, brass, copper, aluminium, rubber, polyurethane and epoxy resins. In vehicles with glass-fibre lined fuel tanks, it may dissolve the resins and burn the resulting mixture in the engine. The result? Blockages and deposits in fuel tanks and lines, engine internals and exhaust systems including catalysers. What kind of air pollution will be pumped from the exhaust systems of such vehicles?
– Ethanol is hygroscopic, it absorbs water over time. Anecdotal evidence from vehicle owners suggests that as a result you cannot leave your fuel in the tank for more than a month without problems. That’s a big issue for classic vehicle owners. Not to mention those who have radically cut vehicle use due to the Covid pandemic!

There are also likely to be some less-well-calculated consequences. If you own and maintain a vehicle for longer periods, so doing your bit to reduce the vehicle carbon footprint, then expect to spend more money on fuel, more money and time on servicing, and regular use of injector cleaners or even permanent use of fuel additives.

There is another consequence for the individual owner. If you normally choose to buy a car secondhand, you won’t want to think about high-mileage vehicles or those more than about 3-4 years old, because they’ll mostly have been used and maintained by people who don’t understand the consequences of the above, and simply drive their vehicles harder to compensate. Result – more wear and tear, lower reliability, and sooner to the scrap heap. What price the resulting greater carbon footprint?

All in all, the decision to standardise on E10 fuel seems a particularly block-headed one, made by people with little understanding of what happens on the roads in real life. One of the reasons I quit my previous home in Belgium was because of the seriously bad and rising air pollution in and around the major cities from vehicles. That was partially the sheer number of diesels on the roads, but also, I believe, because of the thoughtless way people drive, i.e. ego rules.

As I write this, Belgium has just experienced another two days of air-pollution warnings in Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia. This in winter, and during a supposed Covid lockdown which is supposed to limit vehicle use.

EVs not necessarily the solution

Of course, misguided fuel policies are music to the ears of the electric-vehicle brigade, who seem quite happy to sit back and let us get on with poisoning ourselves. While for their part they have dealt with neither the reality that electric vehicles are affordable only by the middle class, nor the likely results of rising global demand for rare-earth metals to construct electric vehicle batteries.

These include issues of exploitation in rare-metal mining practices in Africa and Siberia. While the mooted deep-sea mining alternative, with huge undersea mining machines presently under construction intended to crawl the deep sea bed and collect rare-metal “nodules” for processing, raises serious questions about polluting the deep sea. Few care to speculate about what kind of silt may be stirred up by these machines, and the effects such clouds of debris may have on previously undisturbed deep-sea creatures.

Last but not least, there is the problem of toxic waste from used batteries at the end of vehicle life. All in all, it seems to me that widespread use of electric vehicles brings the possibility of a whole slew of new problems for society and for the climate that the world is ill-equipped to understand or cope with.

As for the classicists like me (see ‘Zen and the Art of …. ‘ ), what do we know? Except that by simply maintaining vehicles well, using the accelerator sympathetically and keeping our mileage to the minimum, we can probably do more to preserve the planetary environment than any amount of policies based on theoretical modelling!

But there are no compelling new ideas, or profits, to be found there. So, we will probably continue to chase the EV dream and then attempt to deal with new kinds of planetary pollution as they emerge. You will excuse me if I feel rather cynical about the future.

© Philip Hunt 2021.

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