E15 alcohol fuel can wreck engines, auto groups’ data say

Source: By James R. Healey, USA TODAY • Posted: Friday, May 18, 2012

E15 fuel can wreck your engine, according to new data presented by auto industry trade groups.

The government has approved the use of E15, a blend of 15% ethanol and 85% gasoline, but that was premature, because testing wasn’t finished, according to Auto Alliance and Global Automakers, Washington, D.C., trade groups that represent most car companies.

E10, a blend of 10% alcohol and 90% gasoline, is common at U.S. service stations. Automakers have designed their vehicles to work on that mix, but boosting it to E15 is over the line, they say.

Alcohol is corrosive and attracts moisture, properties that can threaten mechanical parts.

Alcohol has a high-octane rating, and engines designed to exploit that can produce significant power. But alcohol also has considerably less energy content than gasoline or diesel fuel, so mileage drops as alcohol content rises.

Some engines in race cars and in passenger cars sold in other countries are designed specifically to use fuel with high concentrations of alcohol. But race engines are rebuilt after every event, so offer little evidence of whether alcohol increases wear and tear in street-driven vehicles. And the long-term effects of high-alcohol-content fuel on engines in other markets is unclear.

Groups representing small-engine manufacturers and power-equipment makers have said that alcohol-blend fuels — even E10 — are bad for the engines in boats, chain saws, lawn mowers, generators and the like.

A statement today from the two auto groups cites “new results from a two-year study on engine durability” done for the Coordinating Research Council (CRC). The study for CRC was done by FEV, which the groups describe as “a longtime consultant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

The statement from Auto Alliance and Global Automakers says:

The CRC study released today showed adverse results from E15 use in certain popular, high-volume models of cars. Problems included damaged valves and valve seats, which can lead to loss of compression and power, diminished vehicle performance, misfires, engine damage, as well as poor fuel economy and increased emissions.

“Clearly, many vehicles on the road today are at risk of harm from E15. The unknowns concern us greatly, since only a fraction of vehicles have been tested to determine their tolerance to E15,” said Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of Auto Alliance. “Automakers did not build these vehicles to handle the more corrosive E15 fuel. That’s why we urged EPA to wait for the results of further testing.”

The potential costs to consumers are significant. The most likely repair would be cylinder head replacement, which costs from $2,000 (to) $4,000 for single cylinder head engines and twice as much for V-type engines

Growth Energy, representing ethanol producers, in 2009 petitioned the EPA to allow E15 fuel, which it has done for newer vehicles.

But in 2008, EPA had outlined the tests needed to approve the waiver allowing E15, and those weren’t done before the government OK was given to E15, the auto groups say.

Growth Energy disputed the CRC data as being based on “misinformation and inaccurate data.”

Here’s why Growth Energy says the CRC study is worthless:

Growth Energy says:

The EPA tests were much more thorough, testing more engines for longer periods, and for 120,000 miles, and the results were consistently clear – E15 did not produce any negative effects. If that is not enough, consider the fact that NASCAR has run close to two million miles on E15 in some of the toughest engine conditions imaginable with no problems whatsoever. As a matter of fact, their extensive use of E15 has shown the benefits of increased horsepower and performance.

Here’s what the auto groups/CRC study did:

The CRC Engine Durability study took duplicates of eight different vehicle model engines spanning 2001-2009 model years. All 16 vehicles were tested over a 500-hour durability cycle corresponding to about 100,000 miles of vehicle usage. A range of engine operating parameters was monitored during the test, including cylinder compression, valve wear, valve leakage, emissions and emissions control system diagnostics. Two of the engines tested on E15 had mechanical damage. Another engine showed increased tailpipe emissions beyond the allowable limit.

This study adds to the body of knowledge on the effects of higher blends of ethanol. Ten research papers have been published on the effects of increasing the ethanol blend ratio to E15 from the current E10. In a study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory on the impact on fuel dispensers, all gaskets, seals and O-rings swelled and showed effects that can result in leaks. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) tested samples of service station equipment, and found that, on average, about half of the equipment failed the compatibility tests. Another NREL study found severe damage to marine engines run on E15.

Automakers advise consumers to continue to follow the guidance on fuel selection in their vehicle owner’s manuals. While automakers do market certain vehicles called Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFV) that can use up to 85 percent ethanol, these vehicles have been designed to tolerate the more corrosive ethanol, including changes to fuel pumps, fuel tanks, fuel injectors, engines, control systems, various calibration capacities, emissions systems and materials used.