A Guide to … Ethanol and Biodiesel….NRMA unravels some of the mysteries of Ethanol fuel alternatives and changes we’ll see at the Australian Fuel Pump
Ethanol-blended fuel is being touted as an antidote to rising petrol prices and diminishing oil supplies. While it has its merits in some applications it is by no means a magic solution to the car world’s energy woes.
Most ethanol produced in Australia is derived from the waste of sugar cane, corn and grain crops. There are also studies underway to try to make ethanol from municipal waste which, if successful, could reduce the amount of landfill. For now though, ethanol is derived from grain based crops.
Because of ethanol’s high alcohol content it can be used as a fuel in most modern car engines. In Australia, many petrol stations now offer fuel that is a blend of 10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent regular unleaded (E10). Indeed, the NSW government has mandated that E10 will replace regular unleaded by 2010.
Many motorists are initially attracted to E10’s cheaper price, but is it a false economy? Ethanol has 34 per cent less energy than unleaded petrol. While the octane rating of E10 is similar to premium unleaded (94 to 95 octane) it does not have the same energy density. In other words, you have to burn more to get the same amount of energy as regular fuel.
So that means a tankful of E10 petrol will not get you as far as a tankful of regular petrol, which in many cases negates the modest cost saving.
Generally speaking, most cars that run on regular unleaded can run on E10, but if in doubt contact a mechanic or check with a dealer that services your brand of car.
A small number of E85 outlets have begun to appear in Australia. As the name implies, this is fuel with an 85 per cent blend of ethanol and 15 per cent regular unleaded. Car engines must be modified and specifically designed to run on this fuel. To date only Saab has engines which can run on E85 in Australia. More are expected to follow.
The Australian V8 Supercar motorsport championship also switched to E85 in 2009 and the teams anticipate the race cars will be required to make two extra pit stops (from six to eight) to complete the distance in the famous Bathurst 1000 race in October.
Ethanol-blended fuels don’t like starting in cold weather (below 11 degrees Celsius) and in Sweden where E85 is popular, fuel companies produce E75 during winter.
Australia was the 10th biggest producer of ethanol in the world last year, largely thanks to the Federal Government’s Ethanol Production Grants. The program commenced on 18 September 2002 and is available to ethanol producers until 30 June 2011.
Ethanol Production Grants are paid to ethanol producers at a rate of 38.143 cents per litre. To claim the grant, ethanol must be produced entirely in Australia from biomass feedstock, which is to be used in, or as, a transport fuel in Australia.
In the same way ethanol is being blended with unleaded petrol to reduce the cost and dependence on oil supplies, vegetable oils are being blended with diesel to create bio-diesel.
In Australia, some oil companies offer diesel blended with 2 per cent vegetable oils (B2) and most diesel engines can run on this mix unaffected. Be sure to check with the manufacturer of your vehicle if in doubt, as biodiesel could affect any warranty claims regarding the engine and fuel system.
Indeed, the NSW Government has mandated all diesel fuel will be B2 biodiesel by the end of 2012.
A small number of outlets offer B5 (5 per cent bio-diesel) while B20 (20 per cent bio-diesel) is available to commercial operators by special arrangement. B2 diesel is not harmful to most diesel engines, but B5 and B20 is not suitable for some of the latest generation diesel engines from Europe.
Because of the chemical makeup of biodiesel, and the potential for separation over time of the mixture, biodiesel may not be suitable for vehicles that are used infrequently and sit idle for some months.