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.
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.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?)
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.
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:
Richard,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 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.
Commercial Marketing Manager
Murco Petroleum Ltd.
Westerleigh Terminal, Oakley Green, Westerleigh, Bristol. BS37 8QE
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.