Study: Increasing ethanol use in engines could lead to failures

This past April, the Coordinating Research Council, a not-for-profit organization that specializes in investigating engineering and environmental issues, released the results of its “Intermediate-Level Ethanol Blends Engine Durability Study.” The report was meant to assess the effect that the government’s approval of gasoline that is comprised of more than 10 percent ethanol would have on engines in consumer vehicles.

In particular, the study looked to determine whether the 2011 decision by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to approve E15 – a blend of gasoline mixed with 15 percent ethanol – for use in cars and trucks produced by automakers after 2001 would cause excessive wear on these engines. While E10, the most common mixture of ethanol in gasoline, has been in use for more than 30 years, the statement was greeted with skepticism by many in the automotive industry.

Taking this a step further, the Coordinating Research Council also assessed whether these engines were equipped to handle E20 fuels, which are 20 percent ethanol. The EPA has not yet issued any recommendations on E20 fuel, but government studies have looked to to evaluate its long-term effects.

Overall, the researchers found that while five of the studied engines passed tests using E20 fuel, two failed. (Eight engines were studied in total, one was omitted from the results for what the researchers called a design that was “inappropriate for the test cycle.”)

Still, the results of the study as a whole weren’t exactly the definitive rebuke many in the industry were looking. The researchers noted in their conclusion that there was an 11-percent chance that the engine failures would have occurred regardless of the ethanol content in the gasoline.

The Coordinating Research Council’s experts also indicated that the majority of the failures could be linked to problems with the valve sets in the studied engines. Thus, the failures could have been related to the materials used by manufacturers or wear and deformation.

Still, despite the results, one major trade association issued statements calling for the EPA to reconsider their past suggestions about fuels with a high percentage of ethanol due to the findings.

“This study represents a growing body of scientific evidence concluding that ethanol in blends greater than 10 percent damages vehicles and outdoor power equipment engines and ultimately leaves consumers forced to pay costly repair bills,” Charles Drevna, of the trade association American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, said in a statement on May 16.

According to Drevna, the new evidence posed by the Coordinating Research Council study should be taken into account by the EPA. Drevna cited the agency’s responsibility to protect the American consumer from inadequately tested fuel blends as the basis for his stance on how the agency should proceed.

This statement coincides with past statements by other major groups. For example, shortly after the EPA’s original decision, NAFA Fleet Management Association, an organization that comprises fleet vehicle professionals in the United States and Canada, denounced the idea of using E15.

“We take very seriously the statements of vehicle and engine manufacturers that E15 will damage engines, void warranties and reduce fuel efficiency,” NAFA’s executive director Phil Russo said in release at the time. “We do not understand the ‘rush to judgment’ based on a single set of Department of Energy tests that did not consider the effect that E15 would actually have on engines and costs.”

We recently covered the ethanol debate in a recent post, however, this dealt more specifically with small engines. But, while the debate over ethanol fuel rages on, consumers can take steps to protect their engines from corrosion and other performance issues that may be occurring due to their use of ethanol-blended fuels.

22264-newSTA-BIL® 360°™ Performance helps remove water, protects against corrosion and cleans fuel injectors, carburetors and intake valves to keep your fuel system free of gum, varnish and deposits. It’s perfect for use in your daily drivers such as your car, truck, SUV or minivan, and it’s especially helpful for your collector cars that were not manufactured to run on ethanol blends!