Will adding ethanol affect the engine, mileage?

The central government is planning to extend the supply of ethanol blended petrol to across the country. Will this affect the durability and mileage of your engine? Will there be any reduction in price? Can it be used in existing engines? Here are the details:

What is ethanol?
Waterless ethyl alcohol is known as ethanol. It is produced from sugarcane, grains and other organic matter that contain a lot of starch. Since ethanol molecules contain oxygen, it combusts well. Ethanol is considered a renewable fuel because it is produced from biomass. Due to similar combustion characteristics, ethanol can be used in petrol engines. While some engines use petrol blended with a small percentage of ethanol, others are ethanol-only.

There are several advantages of adding ethanol to petrol. Reduction in emissions is one of the key advantages of using ethanol. Besides, it is considerably cheaper than fossil fuels. Since it is produced from biomass, there are no supply concerns. Because of these reasons, it is widely used in the US and Brazil as fuel. In India, experiments in blending ethanol and petrol started in 2001 itself.

India story
In January2003, nine states in India started using petrol blended with 5% ethanol. Once it got the recognition from Bureau of Indian Standards in 2006, 10 more states started using it. All petroleum companies were allowed to blend 10% ethanol with petrol from April 1, 2019 after the efficiency of the mix was proven. The central government also set a deadline of 2022 to implement it across the country. Now, India is aiming to sell only 20% ethanol-blended petrol from 2025. These measures are expected to not only reduce air pollution but also help bring down import costs of petroleum.

Will it affect the engine
Since the early days, vehicle owners had always been worried if blended petrol will affect their engines. A 5% blend may not affect the engines, but 10% mix could create problems. The increase in the amount of ethanol could result in damage to some plastic, rubber and aluminium components. And this could affect the durability of fuel pipes, injectors and hoses. Though ethanol has a higher combustion rate than petrol, it contains less energy and this could affect fuel efficiency a bit. In case of older vehicles, at least some components will need to be changed.

At present, most states are selling E5 petrol with 5% ethanol blend. The E10 petrol with 10% ethanol is mostly available only in Maharashtra which is a big producer of ethanol. Manufacturers usually specify the quality of fuel to be used in their vehicles. For eg., Honda has confirmed that its vehicles can run on E10 fuel.

When ethanol is blended with petrol, moisture could collect in the tank in the petrol pump. Petroleum companies have instructed pump owners to prevent this. However, if the E20 petrol with 20% ethanol is available in the market, vehicle makers will have to make changes in their engines and other components. Besides, they would also be required to provide components that need to be changed for existing vehicles.

Flex engines
Foreseeing such problems, the government has asked manufacturers to expedite production of flex engines. Flex engines can use the blend of two different fuels at any ratio. Which means, either 100% petrol or 100% ethanol or a blend of both at any ratio. The engine's fuel injection system, fuel pipes and the control system need adjustments for this. The injection pressure, friction and engine timing will be different for a petrol engine and an ethanol unit. If it is a blend of both, then the control unit of the flex engine adjusts its functioning. Citroen has announced that their second small vehicle in India, a small SUV, would get a flex engine.

Existing vehicles
Any petrol engine that has an ECU and port injection can use a conversion kit to transform into a flex unit. Decades of experiences in the US and Brazil show that owners of engines with old carburettors have nothing to worry. They just need to change some components and reduce the service frequency to keep their vehicles running albeit with a lower fuel efficiency. Just remember that the Ford Model T that came a 100 years ago used to run either on petrol or ethanol or a mix of both.

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