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Government could increase ethanol content in fuel – here’s the potential affect on machinery

BALI’s technical officer Owen Baker takes a closer look at the future of fuel. In particular, petrol, and what we must consider as the UK government decides on ethanol concentration in fuel. This is then considered by the lasting ramifications on landscaping machinery. BALI investigates.
 
We rely heavily on petrol as a fuel source, but often give it little thought… until it runs out.  Most of us don’t think twice about what we put in the tank when we’re rushing to get work done or thinking of the next site visit.  After all, it all comes from the same hole in the ground, right? 
 
Whilst petrol originates from the same place, its composition is increasingly changed.  A look at the petrol station forecourt highlights this, with a myriad of coloured nozzles that promise ‘extra power’, or similar
 
In this article I suggest it is worth paying a little more attention to what you’re running your machinery on in the future.  Due to legislation, petrol as we know it is changing and, if you haven’t already noticed a difference, you soon will.  If you don’t pay attention to what you’re putting in the tank in the future, filling up may cost you more than you bargained for.   
 
Most readers will have heard of the term ‘biofuel’, which is a fuel derived from plant or animal matter.  Fossil fuels are commonly combined with ethanol.  Ethanol is often produced via fermentation from any raw material which contains a high proportion of sugar or starch. This is often derived from plant materials including sugar cane, sugar beet and molasses.
 
Currently, most standard unleaded petrol sold in the UK contains 5% bioethanol – called E5.  Ethanol appears in petrol due to the Renewable Energy Directive – signed by all EU member states in 2009. This requires 10% of road transport energy to be from renewable energy sources by 2020.  Using ethanol is a way of increasing the percentage of renewable energy sources in line with the directive. It also plays a part in reducing reliance on fossil fuels
 
The government is currently considering increasing the amount of ethanol content in fuel to 10%. It has issued a call for evidence on whether and how E10 petrol should enter in the UK.  Although no decision is public, the UK is likely to follow other European countries, who have been selling E10 from as early as 2009.  
 
Increased ethanol use is of benefit to the environment, it does pose challenges to owners of petrol-powered equipment. People should be aware of potential issues:
 
  • 1. Ethanol can cause problems in older machinery by dissolving soft materials which were not designed for ethanol fuelProlonged exposure to ethanol can result in parts failing, resulting in leaks or poorly running engines.  At 5% ethanol content, there is likely to be degradation of components.  An increase to 10% will increase this.   
  • 2. Petrol with ethanol has a short storage life, with some mechanics suggesting this may be as little as 1 month before it becomes unusable The reason for this is that, when petrol containing ethanol mixes with water (either in liquid or condensation from) it absorbs it.  Once saturated with water, the ethanol separates from the fuel along with the water. This means the water is likely to settle within engine parts such as the fuel tank or fuel injection system.  Consequently, landscape equipment containing petrol with ethanol, kept for several months may be difficult to start. It may need stale fuel draining from the fuel system before use. Water is damaging to engine components, particularly if left for long periods.
  • 3. When in long-term storage (i.e. winter), fuel containing ethanol may become acidic and cause corrosion of metals.
 
Modern engines produced within the past 5 – 10 years are generally compatible with petrol containing ethanol. The extent that the materials used are completely resistant to the potentially corrosive effects. BALI Registered Affiliate member Makita has confirmed all recent Makita products can run on petrol with an ethanol content of up to 10%.
 
Owners of older equipment who wish to avoid running their equipment on ethanol have options:
 
  • 1. Aspen is a brand of fuel, formulated without any ethanol.  Consequently, it is suitable for use with older engines whose components may be vulnerable to ethanol attack. Aspen is also compatible with all new engines.   
  • 2. Some brands of super unleaded petrol do not contain ethanol.  Esso states, except for Devon, Cornwall, the Teeside area and Scotland, all ‘Synergy Supreme+’ fuel is ethanol free.
  • 3. The government have suggested petrol with 5% ethanol content be available for machinery sensitive to high ethanol content.  This is not confirmed at this time.
 
Guidance differs between manufacturers on longer periods of storage.  Makita, for example, suggest ensuring all fuel tanks are empty prior to a period of storage. Other manufacturers suggest an additive may be poured into the fuel tank prior to machine storage.  These are generally called ‘fuel stabiliser’ or similar, and prevent petrol from deteriorating. Aspen fuel also works as a long-term storage option due to its zero-ethanol content. 
 
Modern machinery is faster, more powerful and efficient than ever before. The industry has come to expect relentless progress from manufacturers of all types of equipmentHowever, machinery must use sophisticated technology to meet stringent regulations. Whilst performance and efficiency are not mutually exclusive, users play an important role in ensuring machinery is running at optimum efficiency
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