Queensland is the latest to mandate a certain percentage of fuel sales as bio-fuels, even though they are bad for most motorcycles and scooters.
From January 1, 2017, Queensland will require fuel retailers to ensure 3% of their petrol sales each quarter is biofuel-based. It follows a similar mandate in NSW.
While no one is forcing any rider to fill their bike with ethanol, the problem is that the mandate results in some service stations not supplying unleaded fuels without a mix of ethanol.
In many NSW stations, you can’t buy standard unleaded fuel and have to use more expensive premium or E10 with 10% ethanol.
While the odd dose of ethanol is ok for most bikes and fine for modern BMWs and American bikes on a more regular basis, it may cause long-term damage to most others.
If the only choice is expensive premium, use it!
While ethanol is cheaper, it is also less efficient and, in the long-run, is not any more economical considering the engine damage it may cause.
Mandating that service stations stock a certain amount of ethanol-blended fuel is purely a political decision to appear environmentally friendly and aid farmers who probably should have switched to other crops years ago when the demand for sugar declined. (Notice both states with the mandate also have ailing sugar industries!)
Ethanol is a type of alcohol produced by fermentation of crops such as sugarcane or grain. In Australia, ethanol content in unleaded fuel is limited to 10% (E10) but some countries use 85% or even higher in South America.
According to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, only post-1986 bikes and ATVs made by BMW, Harley, Polaris and Victory can safely use E10. No Japanese bikes and no Piaggio products can use it. The FCAI doesn’t mention other brands, but it can be assumed ethanol blends are not suitable.
Ethanol doesn’t work with carburettors or mechanical fuel injection. It is also a solvent which attacks metallic and rubber-based fuel lines, and has an affinity to water that can cause steel fuel tanks to rust.
But one of the confusing things for riders is the octane rating. (Octane is a measure of a fuel’s ability to resist engine knocking or pinging which is an uncontrolled burn in the engine that can cause damage. Higher octane fuels resist knocking.)
Most E10 in Australia is rated at 95 RON which seems like it could be suitable for bikes that require that higher octane rating. (In America it has a lot lower RON ratings as their highest RON fuel is only 91.)
RACQ executive manager technical and safety policy, Steve Spalding, warns that ethanol-blended, higher-octane fuels may not necessarily meet the correct fuel requirements for a vehicle designated to run on PULP.
While the RON may be high enough, there is another property in fuel, called Motor Octane Number (MON), which is rarely specified on the bowser.
MON is usually about 10 numbers lower than RON, so a MON of 85 would be ok for a bike rated at 95 RON.
However, ethanol fuels have much lower MON numbers than their RON which could be too low for your bike.
Either ask the service/gas station for the MON rating or fill up non-ethanol premium unleaded fuel of 95 RON or higher.
It is always best to have a higher octane rating than a lower one even though modern engine management systems have knock sensors that can handle lower octane.
If there is no choice but to fill up with ethanol fuel, make sure your next fill is with a high-octane fuel.
For and against ethanol
Ethanol supporters say it lowers gas/fuel prices, furthers energy security by reducing reliance on foreign oil, and revitalises the rural community. However, even those debates are far from definitive and the environmental argument is far from proven.
But mainly it is not doing your hip pocket any favours, even though E10 is usually a few cents cheaper.
There is about 3% less energy content in a litre of E10 compared with unleaded fuel which means your engine performance and fuel economy will be 3% worse, or to put it another way, your range will be limited by 3%.
The price of E10 would need to be at least 3% less than ULP for riders to even break even on the fill. And then there is the long-term damage it could do to your engine.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that ethanol can damage motorcycle engines and has proposed a cutback in its availability, not a mandate as in NSW and Queensland.
The US agency says ethanol-blended fuels increase exhaust temperatures which can cause component failure. Now, more and more US states are reversing their mandate decisions.