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E10 Fuel- An Unacceptable Risk

by Dr. Gary Fooks University of Queensland on 7 Feb 2012
Ethanol Factory SW
According the marine engine industry, just one tank of the Ethanol E10 fuel could mean an expensive trip to the workshop. Ethanol fuel is being sold at almost every petrol station on the east coast and will be hard to avoid in NSW and Qld. Here marine industry researcher, Gary Fooks explains the risks and hazards of E10 which was introduced while we were sleeping.

Boats more than a few years old, and any boat with a fibreglass or aluminium fuel tank is at risk. There are no real savings from E10 (10% ethanol 90% petrol) at current pump prices, and the potential damage bill could be high.
While ethanol is okay for about 60% of new cars, some boat owners are about to experience melted fibreglass fuel tanks, fuel leaks and damaged engines.

That’s why all of the four major oil companies, as well as the NSW and Queensland governments, have issued warnings against using ethanol in any boat and advising not to leave it in lawn mowers for more than a few weeks.
David Heyes, of BRP Evinrude and Chairman of the Australian Marine Engine Council (AMEC) recently stated that his members were alarmed. Heyes explained that while almost all modern outboards will at least tolerate E10, the outboard industry was very concerned with the potential damage to fuel systems, and especially for the safety of boat owners.

The real cause of damage to marine engines is dissolved fuel system components being deposited inside sensitive modern engines.

The risks for boat owners come from three key characteristics of ethanol.
* It’s a powerful solvent,
* It doesn’t stay mixed with petrol, and
* It has a very short shelf life.

The solvent nature means that it dissolves some of the components of fibreglass fuel tanks, as well as many elastomer (rubber like) materials found in fuel systems. These pass through the best filters and end up forming destructive deposits inside marine engines. Chemical attacks on tanks and hoses mean the inevitable leaks are a fire risk. That means a fire risk, or at best, a powerful solvent attack to the bilge surfaces.

Ethanol and petrol will 'separate' under normal, moist boating conditions, and that action concentrates the ethanol, so it can do even more damage.

Ethanol has higher volatility than most elements of petrol, meaning it evaporates off first. That means it may go ‘sour’ in as little as 2 weeks.

As state governments in the biggest boating states continue to push ethanol blended fuels at the bowsers, much of the boat building industry has missed the warning signs.

Aluminium tanks aren’t in the clear either – they suffer increased corrosion.

What is Ethanol?
Basically ethanol is a form of alcohol and made in much the same way, by fermenting crops.
In the USA it’s made from corn, in Europe from sugar beet and wheat stalks. In Australia, it’s mostly sourced from sugar cane, wheat, and some other grains. In Victoria, there is even a suggestion to make fuel from excess wine production!

Ethanol is used in petrol for a number of reasons.
First it stretches out the available petrol which is a good thing with rising fuel costs and the fear that oil will run out.
It also oxygenates the fuel, making for cleaner burning and lower emissions.

The Octane rating of ethanol is over 120, and so added to petrol it enhances the octane and with less environmental damage than MTBE currently used, or the lead we used to use.

E10 - A Money Saver?
The attraction to most motorists is the apparent lower price of E10 blended fuel, but this is a very dubious proposition, to say the least.

There are no dollars to be saved by using E10 at today’s prices.

Ethanol has a heating value of 23.5 MJ/L, which is 32% precent less than petrol according to my calculations. Even conservative studies say that a 10% mix (E10) will lose about 3% in fuel economy.

So if unleaded fuel is $1.30 per litre, E10 has to be under $1.26 just for the buyer to break even. That’s 4 cents per litre discount just to get equal value.

Currently the price difference is closer to 3 cents, so E10 is hardly a bargain.

If you want to do the right thing, and support a renewable bio-fuel then I take my hat off to you. Just realize that you will be paying more, per km and keep it for your car and not the boat.

Ethanol - The Super Solvent
As Paul Dawson, technical guru at Evinrude puts it, ethanol is going to liberate dirt and residue in your fuel system that you never knew existed.

In 2007, Shell had to shut down its ethanol sales for a period because the new fuel in old tanks just kept releasing sediments and blocking up filters.

Boaties will experience the same blocked filter problems. So if you end up using ethanol (by accident, or through lack of choice) plan for a filter change after the first tank, and carry a spare or two.

Even the best filters won’t block some potential hazards. Some chemicals become completely dissolved and readily pass though the very best filters before ending up re-deposited inside the engine. And that’s how engines become uneconomical to repair.

Boats with fibreglass tanks are most at risk from the solvent properties of ethanol. Fibreglass tanks are soon attacked by ethanol, dissolving the resins, eventually weakening the structure and inviting leaks.

That also means any fuel spills around the filler cap (who amongst us has never had some form of blow-back when filling the tank?) could cause some permanent damage to gel coat or paint finishes.

An ethanol spill is one you need to wash off immediately. And I mean, within seconds. Wait until you have finished filling and paid at the cashier, and the damage will be visible.

Potential leaks can come from any part of the fuel system. Hoses and gaskets are unlikely to be E10 compatible and any part that is old or suffered UV damage is certainly at risk of leaking.

Boat USA conducted tests on two older boats that had suffered suspected ethanol damage. The 1967 and 1970 Bertram’s both showed signs of engine and fuel system damage.

They found black material on an intake valve which indicated esters, keytones and polyester. In other words, the fibreglass fuel tanks and perhaps fuel lines were dissolving, and these chemicals were passing straight through the filters before being deposited inside the engines.

The fuel in the tanks showed styrene, a component of polyester resin. The tanks were also tested and showed to have aggressive degradation, and had lost 40% of their strength.

There is no easy solution for this. Fibreglass tanks will have to be replaced before boats can be used with any ethanol blend.

Some boat builders are on the ball and have been planning for this day. Greg Haines, of Haines Signature, told us that their fibreglass boats sold today, all have appropriate plastic tanks.

But not all boat builders are as forward thinking as Haines Signature. A quick survey at a recent boat show revealed that six out of ten boats were not ready for ethanol. Mostly smaller brands.

Aluminium tanks are reported to be at risk of corrosion. E10 should be okay, but if there is chloride (from salt water) or copper (e.g. brass fittings) present in the mix then chemical reactions mean accelerated corrosion.
Ethanol makes petrol more electrically conductive, and this may also be a cause of some sort of cathodic corrosion.

Whatever the cause, the NMAA in the USA is clear that aluminium tanks corroded and ethanol was the cause.
The bottom line is that only approved plastic and quality stainless tanks will meet future requirements.
What we need urgently is a review of boat building standards.

The USA introduced fuel tank standards to meet the challenge of ethanol years ago, but there are no signs that Australia is considering a similar standard.

Separation of Fuels
Ethanol is hygroscopic and absorbs moisture just like brake fluid and diesel fuel. Up to 0.5% absorption is not a problem, but beyond that, the saturated ethanol sinks to the bottom of the tank in a process called Phase Separation.

Refer to the pic below, supplied by Mercury Marine. The photo shows a sample of fuel in which phase separation has occurred. The saturated ethanol is at the bottom.

Important: No amount of stirring or shaking will mix the ethanol back with the gasoline, and there are no proven additives that will fix the problem. So that leaves us with some undesirable side effects.

There are some expensive fuel additives on the market with vague claims about helping the situation but none even claim to be able to stop phase separation before it commences.

After phase separation, 100% petrol is floating at the top of the tank. That sounds great until you realize that the missing ethanol was our octane booster.

So the first sign of separated fuel may be pre-ignition or pinging as the octane in our remaining fuel drops about 3 points from say 91 RON to 88 RON.

As the phase-separated ethanol builds up at the bottom of the tank, it eventually reaches the fuel pick-up tube. At this moment, we get a 100% dose of water saturated ethanol through a fuel system and engine designed to cope with no more than 10%.

In nearly pure form we were surprised how strong a solvent ethanol can be. The result is some real damage to engines and fittings, and a high risk of fuel leaks. The moisture that causes separation will always collect in fuel tanks.
Humid air is drawn in through the tank breather and as night cools, condenses on the walls of the tank, runs down the walls, and is immediately attracted to the ethanol.

Light aircraft pilots know this phenomenon well. Their pre-flight check includes draining a small amount of fuel from a nipple on the bottom of each tank. There is hardly a morning when pilots don’t collect at least a few drops of water.
The traditional solution to condensation in planes or boats is to keep the tank full overnight, leaving little space for moist air. But ethanol also has a short shelf life so leaving a full tank when you won’t (or can’t) use the boat for a month, is going to produce a new set of problems.

Once phase separation occurs the only cure is to completely empty the tank, and clean out any fuel, ethanol or water in the bottom. That means opening up the tank, not just pumping it empty through the fuel pickup.
Disposing of the tank residue is a real problem.

We called a few local authorities and got some different answers.
Brisbane Council will accept up to 20 litres, but only at specific collection points and then only four times a year.
The coastal Redland Shire Council (heartland of the whole Stradbroke Island(s) and Southern Moreton Bay boating world) will accept only five litres, also just one day each quarter.

It will pay to check the policy with your local council. We had a few strange responses from Council officers before we got on to the right person.

Some incorrectly advised that fuel was not accepted, when it was. One even suggested that we leave the fuel can open until it all evaporated! This creates a serious fire risk as well as being about as environmentally friendly as pouring it down the drain.

Short Shelf Life
The third shortcoming of ethanol is its short shelf life.
Normal petrol has a shelf life of between 30 and 90 days, depending on which expert you consult, and believe. BP explains that even regular fuel that has had two weeks at 30°C, is suspect. Top End and bush readers – please note!

The reason is simple enough to understand. Petrol is not one chemical, but a range of compounds from heavy to light. Some of the lighter elements like butane (as found in a disposable cigarette lighter) are the first to evaporate.
As the weeks go by, all the light elements evaporate off and all you are left with are the thicker fuel components.

Ethanol is very volatile, meaning it converts from liquid to vapour readily. So it doesn’t take long for too much of the 10% ethanol to just evaporate away.

Again, that will leave you with low octane petrol and the resulting engine problems.
What’s worse, is the thicker ‘gums’ left in the fuel that makes its way in to your engine, and well, they are called 'gums' for a reason.

An outboard mechanic friend in warm north Queensland told us that he could stay in business just from the repairs he does to engines ‘gummed up’ with old fuel.

What The Oil Companies Say
We contacted BP, Shell and Caltex during research and they all advised that boat owners should not use ethanol mix fuels in their boats. Full stop. They each told us that their warning was mostly because ethanol has a dramatically shorter life expectancy, especially in a marine environment.

Catch 22
To reduce moisture accumulation in fuel tanks the usual remedy is to keep them full, so there is less space for moist air and less condensation. On the other hand ethanol blended fuel should be kept for no longer than two weeks. Keep the tank full, yet regularly turned over, is the catch for many boat owners.

It is a real Catch 22. Keep the tank full but don’t let it get more than two – three weeks old. For commercial operators and the fortunate few who can go out every week that won’t be an issue, but the majority of boaties are going to have a problem.

There are additives available, fuel stabilisers, which claim they can keep ordinary petrol fresh. None could provide any research to show that they could solve the problems with ethanol.

As noted, the best advice from boat builders and oil companies has been to completely remove all fuel from the system at the end of each trip, unless you are certain that the boat will be used again within a week or two.
That’s going to mean a lot of boat owners siphoning out fuel at the tired end of a weekend and transferring it to the car.

That’s a basket of safety problems we don’t need to see.

In the US last year, Jeff Wasil the Emissions Certification Engineer for BRP Evinrude Marine Engine division testified before the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in the United States House of Representatives.

He stated in no uncertain terms that: 'The reality is that if E15 becomes the standard gasoline in the marketplace, millions of consumers will run the risk of having their vehicles, boats, lawnmowers, and other gasoline-powered devices damaged, because they will not have the option of fueling them properly. Although NMMA and others petitioned EPA to require gas stations that offer E15 to also offer E10, EPA has denied this petition and has no plans to mandate the continued availability of E10. This will certainly lead to the very misfueling that EPA wants to avoid.'

Political Matters
Politicians have committed to grow ethanol sales in Australia.
The Federal government set a target for the use of 350 megalitres of biofuels a year by 2010. NSW mandated 2% of all sales will be ethanol from 2007, and the Queensland government announced a 5% mandate that commenced in 2010.

In NSW the required ethanol percentage increased to 6% on 1 January 2011 and from 1 July 2011, all regular grade unleaded petrol (ULP) was to be replaced by E10.
In Queensland it’s the oil companies who have had to make regular unleaded fuel a rare sight at petrol stations just so they can meet the government mandate.

The latest mandated targets have been delayed. Manildra did not make the necessary investments and floods in Qld slowed production at the Proserpine refinery, but both now seem back on line.

What that has meant, in the two biggest boating states, is that the only option for trailer boat owners is to pay an extra 15 cents per litre to fill up with Premium Unleaded fuel.

These fuels go under various brand names such as Shell Ultra, or BP Ultimate, and ends up costing me an extra $13 every time I go fishing.

The high octane fuel doesn’t give me any better performance, but nor does it do any damage. The real pain comes from paying $13 for nothing. Well, nothing but a ‘fine’ for owning a boat, and not making the environment much better.

The big boys with their big boats don’t care too much, at least not if they fill up at marinas, which have an exemption from selling E10. To pull your trailer boat up to a marina to refuel is not an option for many of us, and usually not all that cheap, as the marinas have a severe testing regime to follow, their volume is far less than a very small local garage – and they usually have to charge more to recover their costs of operation.

Where are the Industry bodies on all this? The Boating Industry Association in NSW just sees this as an issue of education, and don’t seem to consider the 15 cents per litre penalty will make boating any less popular.
I think they are wrong.

The Boat Owners Association of NSW does not believe there is a problem, because marina fuel is exempted. It seems this association doesn’t cater for the needs of trailer boat owners at all.

Marine Queensland has joined with the RACQ and feed lot farmers to push back the tide of ethanol, but I’m not holding my breath. In fact, I fear more bad news is to come.

The push to E15 in the USA has almost passed its final hurdle, and Aussie cane and grain farmers, and ethanol manufacturers like Manildra (a large donor to both sides of politics in NSW) are no doubt excited at the prospect of 15% ethanol.

While we weren’t looking, E85 (85% ethanol) has slipped into the market.

The new generation of Holden Commodores can now run on E85, and Caltex has guaranteed to come to the party with this high ethanol fuel at 100 sites so far. Much of the government research so far has missed the point that ethanol damages fuel tanks and systems first, before it damages outboards.

A 2004 Federal study conducted by the Orbital Company in WA, tested nine identical 15hp Mercury 2 strokes and found they were mostly compatible with E10.

But no one looked at fuel tanks and fuel lines. And nor did they see that the USA had changed boat building standards 10 years ago to get ready for ethanol blends. A change that doesn’t even seem to have been considered in Australia.

Still, we have to give some credit. Bureaucrats in Queensland were quick to pick up the ball when we gave them a call. They even offered an exclusive statement from the Minister.

The key points he raised included:
'The main reason the Queensland Government has not mandated ethanol sooner is the importance of education to car and other vehicle owners and to give the industry time to prepare for production and distribution.
'This is highlighted by some issues raised within the boating industry regarding the suitability of ethanol blended fuels for some engines and fuel tanks.
'Most motor vehicle manufacturers provide advice about suitability for use with ethanol blended fuels and I would encourage other engine manufacturers, if they haven’t already done so, to make this information available as well.
'Under the Queensland mandate, consumers will still be able to purchase regular unleaded fuels.'

Yes, Minister - but where? Not in a lot of suburbs near me in Brisbane.
Ethanol blended fuels have been used in the USA for some years and the risk to boats is well documented.
There is a large volume of well documented research peaking in 2006 and even the conservative US Coast Guard issued advice in its bulletin of March 2007.

Time For Action
Don’t hold your breath that government will compensate you for this change to ethanol. For most new boats from large builders, it won’t be a problem (except reduced range) but if your boat is a few years old, or has a fibreglass tank then you are up for an expensive refit and a new fuel tank if you use ethanol. Still, that’s cheaper than an outboard overhaul.

Small boat builders still haven’t caught on to the ethanol issue, and it’s up to the Boating Industry Associations to educate their members and get standards updated. Until then, it’s buyer beware!

Nor can we expect any government to change their plans. Using (much) more ethanol is a vote winner for both sides of politics.

The immediate need is for a serious information program to educate and warn the boating public. But please not another government brochure - this is a case where Boat Club and the BIA’s should run the show and government should foot the bill.

What we really need is to learn from this case.

Our marine industry is about to be caught asleep at the wheel yet again, when the USA had fuel tank standards nearly a decade ago.

It’s a no brainer to see that whatever happens over there, finds its way here.

The immediate need is for the Boating Industry bodies to educate the boat builders of Australia that they should build boats with ethanol ready components, including fuel tanks and lines, as well as warning stickers on the filler caps. That's not just boat builders in Qld and NSW where E10 is sold. Every brand of boat eventually makes it way to these two states, no matter where they are manufactured.

I'd suggest the Australian boat building standard needs to be updated as well, but that's not the full answer.
Sadly I have met only one boat builder who has a copy of the Standard. Many didn't even know it existed and asked me for a copy.

Come to think of it, even marine retailers are, to some degree, boat builders in that they assemble BMT packages, so they need to be educated, too.

The Future
No doubt political pressure will push more and more ethanol into Aussie fuel tanks.
Currently, the loudest ethanol fan is Bob Katter, the outspoken Qld politician with a big hat who just formed the Australian Party. His party will likely win a few seats in the next Queensland election, especially in north Qld, and as the Greens have shown, these days a few seats delivers a small party, a big punch.

Now I like a politician willing who calls a spade a spade. I like what Bob has said about supporting recreational fishing. And I like the fact that ethanol supports farmers and reduces our reliance on imported oil.

But boats and E10 don't mix.

The push to E15 (15% ethanol mix) in the USA is more of a disaster in the making. In addition to the risks of E10, E15 will burn out engines.

Ethanol carries more oxygen than petrol and so ethanol blends run lean. That's ok in cars with lots of computers to adjust the air/ fuel ratio, but in anything carburetted or open loop, the air/fuel mix is fixed.

Not only fixed, but often tamper-proof to meet emissions regulations in the USA (and in Australia maybe 2012).

A lean engine runs hot, and as Evinrude engineer and guru Jeff Wasil has proven, small engines from lawn mowers to outboards will burn out and die sooner if they have to use E15.

The light on the horizon is a different biofuel, Butanol.

Butanol is less corrosive that ethanol, is not hygroscopic and has more energy per litre than ethanol.
The technology to economically make this better biofuel has taken a leap forward is recent times, so we may have a solution in the pipeline.

See following story on some of the positives of butanol.

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