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Ethanol - Part One: The Risks

18th February, 2011

Start talking about ethanol among classic bike riders and you'll usually see worried faces. Most classic bike magazines in the last few months have run articles on the effects of ethanol. Some conclusions seem fairly alarming.

We've drawn together some information and added the results of our own research. I'll split our report into two sections: the first sets out the risks of using ethanol, the second suggests some remedies.

Ethanol, also known as 'bio-fuel', is a form of motor fuel derived from renewable vegetable sources, often from maze and sugar cane. Motor fuel containg ethanol is said to produce lower levels of harmful emissions than fossil fuel. In the UK and Europe the fuel on sale at the pumps is a mixture of ethanol and petrol. Currently in the UK the level of ethanol in petrol is 5% (known as E5). In other countries the mixture contains 10% of ethanol (so-called E10) or 20% (E20). In some American states fuel on sale may contain up to 85% ethanol.

The Department of Trade issued a report in January 2011 on the effects of ethanol in fuel. The report mentions that the legislation states that the reason for intoducing ethanol into motor fuel is to 'help reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from road and off road transport'.

The report goes on to mention two matters of direct concern to owners of classic motorcycles: 1) most vehicles over 10 years old will have components that will not be compatible with E10 fuel; 2) ethanol fuels (E5 and E10) may cause catastrophic failure to glass fibre tanks.

These remarks make clear that the main problem for users of classic motocycles is that ethanol has damaging effects on certain materials used in older vehicles. Materials that were suitable for use with petrol may be ruined by ethanol. For example, ethanol is not compatible with zinc, brass, copper and lead. Polyurethane and certain types of rubber and cork are also liable to be damaged by ethanol.

The Department of Trade report also made a few recommendations in response to submissions from users of classic vehicles:

1) vehicles over 10 years old should not be fueled on E10 unless the manufacture can state that the vehicle is compatible with E10 fuel. Of course, no manufacturer of classic motorcycles can give such approval - they all went out of business years ago.

2) E5 should not be phased out in the foreseeable future.

3) consideration should be given to maintain E0 fuel (fuel with no ethanol content) for historic vehicles.

It's worth noting that the legislation permits but does not mandate an increase from 5% to 10% ethanol in fuel. The report explains that this means that 'the provision of fuel to consumers would not necessarily change in the UK'. However, E10 fuel will probably be introduced into the UK at some point in the future.

There are, therefore, a number of questions of concern for owners of classic motorcycles. The most important of these would seem to be:

1) will E10 (and to a lesser degree E5) cause significant damage to components?

2) if so, are there effective and reasonably priced remedies available?

3) is it possible to prepare our machines in advance to cope with E10 fuel?

I think the most reliable answers to these questions will come from owners who have used ethanol fuels in classic bikes for some time already. With this in mind we talked to a number of owners in the USA, where ethanol has been used in petrol for some years. Having listened to what they had to say a few things became clear. I'll spell out our findings in the second half of this report.

Also see Ethanol - Part Two: The Remedies


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