Caution the Five Percent

Feb. 1, 2019

Why the US may soon move to mandatory E15 fuel and the effect it will have on today’s engines.

Why the US may soon move to mandatory E15 fuel and the effect it will have on today’s engines.

According to a recent Business Insider article, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to unveil an expansion of the use of E15, a fuel mixture of 85 percent gasoline and 15 percent ethanol, a corn-based fuel. Currently, the EPA bans the use of E15 during the summer because of smog concerns. The changes are expected to lift that ban by this coming summer.

The move is likely to set off a fight with the oil industry, which opposes the shift to a higher percentage of biofuels, and could prompt backlash from oil-state politicians. Most fuel is 10-percent ethanol, and the oil industry argues that higher levels of ethanol can be harmful to car engines — though the EPA has approved the use of E15 in all light-duty cars since 2001.

E15 and politics are an interesting pair. Let’s see if we can get a handle on when and how all of this started and where it’s headed.

Ethanol as a fuel is not a new idea. According to Wikipedia, it was originally used in 1826 as a fuel for a prototype internal combustion (IC) engine. To be perfectly accurate, it was a blend of ethanol and turpentine — but it worked. Nicholas Otto worked with ethanol, but the discovery of oil in 1859, which produced hydrocarbon-based fuels, brought most ethanol work to a halt. However, in 1896, Ford’s “Quadricycle” was developed to run on pure ethanol. The revolutionary Ford Model T, developed in 1908, was capable of running on gasoline, ethanol or a combination. However, lower prices made gasoline the winner.

In the United States, beginning in the 1970s, oxygenated fuel components were added to gasoline to replace lead as an antiknock agent. Methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) was the most popular due to its cost and efficacy. However, in the 1990s MTBE began to appear in ground water and was subsequently replaced by ethanol. The use of ethanol was also a benefit for emissions reductions in certain areas. By 2003, MTBE had been essentially replaced by ethanol at 10 percent of the blend. Later, some engines were designed for so-called “Flex” fuel operation, at up to 85-percent ethanol. More about that later.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 required the use of 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2012, and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 raised the standard to 36 billion gallons of annual renewable fuel (including ethanol) use by 2022. Although 36 billion gallons sounds like a huge number, it needs to be put into perspective. In 2017, about 142.98 billion gallons of gasoline were consumed in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Ethanol is relatively economical, as long as it is denatured (a small amount of benzene is added to make it non-drinkable). If it is pure (95-percent or 190 proof, depending on your interests), there is a significant tax placed on it.

This set off a chain of events that ultimately made a major impact on fuel blending and marketing. American farmers discovered that they had a new market for corn, which is the most common source of ethanol. They turned their fields over to corn production and currently produce about 60 percent of the global production of ethanol. Brazil is the next largest producer. Between the two of them, they represent 88 percent of the total world supply. Not only did farmers plant more corn, but suppliers also built large tank farms to hold all of the extra product.

This all would have been wonderful, but reality, in the form of the Great Recession of 2008, delivered a real blow to the economy — especially the automobile industry. According to Jim Lang of “Lang Report,” new car and light truck sales went from 16.1 million in 2007 to 13.2 million in 2008. 2009 was even worse, at 10.4 million. Along with this 35-percent drop in sales came a significant reduction in miles driven. In fact, it was not until around 2014 that vehicle sales returned to 2007 levels.

Meanwhile, federal legislation kept rolling right along with mandated increases in ethanol production, which were calculated on historic annual fuel sales increases prior to 2007. The net result was more ethanol than required to meet the mandated 10-percent level. In short order, the ethanol producers were pushing for an increase to 15 percent to use the additional volumes sitting in their tanks.

Beginning in 2005, most domestic car manufacturers had an option; the so-called “flex fuel” engines, which were designed for fuel operation at up to 85-percent ethanol. Interestingly, over half of the owners of these vehicles didn’t know they had such a vehicle. The flex fuel option was manufactured so all non-metallic parts of the vehicle powertrain that came in contact with the E85 fuel would be resistant to ethanol. That included such things as seals, gaskets and fuel lines.

In 2009, ethanol industry organizations began to seriously lobby for an increase in ethanol levels to 15 percent. Most of the automakers objected, insisting that their regular (not flex fuel) vehicles could be damaged. EPA had OK’d the use of up to 15-percent ethanol in vehicles newer than 2001.

According to a survey conducted by the American Automobile Association (AAA) in 2012, only about 12 million out of the more than 240 million light-duty vehicles on the U.S. roads in 2012 were approved by manufacturers and fully compliant with E15 gasoline. The AAA survey noted that 2012 BMW, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen warranties would not cover E15-related damage.

Despite the controversy, in order to adjust to EPA regulations, 2012 and 2013 General Motors model year vehicles could use fuel containing up to 15 percent ethanol, as indicated in the vehicle owners’ manuals. However, GM warned that for model year 2011 or earlier vehicles, they “strongly recommend that GM customers refer to their owners manuals for the proper fuel designation for their vehicles.” Ford Motor Company also stated that all of its 2013 vehicles were E15 compatible, including hybrid electrics and vehicles with EcoBoost engines. Porsches built since 2001 have been approved by the manufacturer to use E15. Beginning in 2014, Volkswagen’s entire lineup became E15 capable. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles made their 2016 lineup of Chrysler, Fiat, Jeep, Dodge and Ram vehicles E15 compatible.

As automakers began to OK E15 for use in their vehicles, did that change to engine oil makeup? Well, an automotive engine oil designed for higher percentages of ethanol in the fuel is not too different from current oils — which are designed for up to 85-percent ethanol, known as “flex fuel.” Because spark-ignited engines need some volatility to burn at low starting temperatures, 15-percent gasoline is needed since ethanol doesn’t have sufficient vapor pressure at, say, -40 F to ignite.

Ethanol does have some baggage. First, it does not have as much energy per pound as gasoline. In fact, the number is about 33-percent less, which translates into reduced fuel economy. At 10-percent of the blend, that doesn’t amount to much more than 1 mpg fuel economy loss, but the gains in emissions make it a reasonable deal.

However, at 15-percent, ethanol becomes more of a problem. One study done by the Royal Society of Chemistry shows the adverse effects on wear when synthetic engine oils are diluted with various levels of ethanol/gasoline blends. In addition, the problem isn’t related solely to automobiles. Other gasoline-fueled engines, such as lawn mowers, leaf blowers and outboard engines, show adverse effects to fuel systems and wear. There are also concerns, especially with two-cycle engines related to pre-mixes. Concerns about system compatibility (fuel lines, seals and gaskets to name a few), as well as ethanol’s facility for picking up water are more serious. As a result, none of the builders of these engines recommend using 15-percent ethanol blends. Of course, with flex fuel there is an energy penalty of about 20 percent, and there is a greater concern about seals and water absorption to worry about, as well.

So where does this leave us with regard to E15? The bottom line is that as shop operators, we need to be very concerned and cautious about lube recommendations. Engine oils are designed for the current marketplace, which is really E10. Surprisingly, there are no standard engine tests that are used to confirm engine oil performance that are run using an E10 fuel blend. Whether or not this is meaningful is unknown. Certainly field tests, if nothing else, have been run to confirm no harm. Caution should be the key word for any shop operator.

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