Fuel blending has been a common practice in motorsports almost since their inception, but for everyday motoring, the choices have always been limited. That could be about to change. With deep concerns about reaching peak oil supplies, carbon-driven climate change, and urban pollution there are powerful new reasons for delivering blended fuels at our service station pumps.
For mass markets the fuels we are potentially talking about include petrol, diesel, biodiesel, methanol, and ethanol.
Traffic fumes are now the number one environmental blight in British cities – in fact, we have the worst air quality in all of Europe and many children and adults die every year from asthma and lung disease because of it. Alcohol is a much cleaner burning fuel. In parts of the USA and South America, petrol containing around 10% ethanol (E10) has been in use for some time and E15 (15% ethanol) is allowed in newer vehicles. The main objective is to ameliorate some of the air pollutions in cities where it reaches dangerous intensities.
At the moment the supply of alcohol/petrol fuel blends is being delayed while new refinery capacity is built.
Before higher percentages of alcohol become commonplace at service stations, we will also have to wait until there are more redesigned cars on the road. Not only can high ethanol fuels degrade engines and equipment not designed for them, but in cold northern countries like the UK, they struggle to start existing engines. Ethanol also achieves fewer miles per gallon. In the future, however, we can expect manufacturers and oil companies to move more aggressively toward petrol/ethanol blends as the standard type of road fuel.
Although there are still scientific doubts on whether rising CO2 is a cause or consequence of global warming, a major plank of international strategy is to replace fossil fuels with renewable alternatives. Burning a biofuel generates just as much CO2 as burning oil, but the reasoning is that growing it sequesters that CO2 back out of the atmosphere again, so little is added (although agriculture itself is fuel intensive).
By building up the agricultural production of fuel, worries about future supplies of fossil fuel (“peak oil”) are also being addressed by the introduction of fuel blending.
Biodiesels are relatively easy to blend with traditional diesel, and blends like “B5” and “B20” can safely be put in the tank of any existing diesel driven vehicle.
Flex fuel vehicles
An FFV is any car or lorry designed to run on a variety of fuels, and tolerate higher levels of alcohol, most of which will be derived from renewable agricultural sources. A typical high alcohol fuel blend is E85 or flex-fuel which can vary between 51% and 85% ethanol.
In the short term, you can expect governments to be generous both to FFVs and blended fuels by awarding them tax discounts. This is likely to be particularly appealing for companies that operate fleet vehicles who can already get some tax breaks for lowering their carbon footprint.