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What impact will ethanol have on equipment?
by Keith Reid, from National Petroleum News-Special Report on E85

MTBE is on the way out -- sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, the oxygenate requirement for reformulated gasoline is staying put, and it is even being enhanced if things continue as expected. The Bush energy policy legislation that has been bouncing around Washington for the past couple of years includes a five-billion-gallon ethanol mandate for use in transportation fuels in the United States by the year 2012. In all likelihood, marketers across the United States who may not be familiar with ethanol are going to have to get used to the new fuel formulation in the near future.

A standard nozzle should be fine for ethanol at oxygenate levels, but may or may not stand up to E85 applications.

The impact on supply infrastructure is going to be difficult, but manageable. Ethanol cannot efficiently be transported in pipelines (either straight or blended) because it picks up too much water. That means ethanol will have to be transported by truck, barge and rail into regional terminal locations for blending. Marketers and retailers will also face some issues, though not nearly as great as those faced upstream.

Ethanol is "drinking" alcohol, which serves as a high-octane renewable fuel. It is produced by the fermentation of corn and other grain products, and in the future may be economically produced from "biomass" or agricultural wastes. It is currently used in some markets as an octane enhancer and as an oxygenate in reformulated gasoline at around 5.7 percent in Environmental Protection Agency Clean Air Act non-attainment areas. These concentrations are in fairly common use in some regions today, and the gasoline storage and dispensing equipment can readily handle these levels.

Another fuel seeing growing interest, particularly with the ethanol mandate, is "E85." This is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. It is a high-octane fuel, but one containing less overall energy than gasoline. Special flexible fuel vehicles are required for E85 that can run on either E85 or a traditional gasoline with little or no ethanol. More than 3 million FFVs have already been sold in the United States and include a number of Ford products like recent
Taurus sedans, Ranger pickups and Explorer sport utility vehicles.

Similar to E85 is E95 (a blend of 95 percent ethanol and 5 percent gasoline) developed for use in diesel engines.

Today, most E85 fueling stations are located in the Midwest, with over 100 in Minnesota alone, though there is growth in other regions. To encourage the adoption of E85, the federal government and many states (particularly in the Corn Belt) have enacted tax or other incentives to help encourage its use. For example, Illinois offers rebates for automobile conversion or the purchase of FFVs, and incentives to petroleum marketers in the form of a $10,000 tax credit. A 54-cent per gallon federal subsidy given to blenders further encourages the spread of ethanol, which would face an economic challenge in the market otherwise.

Just what impact will the increased use of ethanol have on retailers? At oxygenate and octane enhancement levels it should be minimal, with most standard equipment used to store and dispense gasoline already designed to accommodate the additive. At E85 levels some additional challenges come into play.


The first potential impact from ethanol starts with the product drop, and with components like the fill pipe.

"From the corrosion standpoint, aluminum can have some issues when you get into 85 percent ethanol," said Mike Bartush, product manager, environmental systems for Cincinnati-headquartered OPW. "We offer an anodize product that coats these materials so that there's not a problem with these alternative fuels. We also changed some of our gaskets about five years ago to be more compatible with the new fuels. When you're talking about five or 10 percent ethanol it's not an issue with our aluminum tubes and aluminum adapters. And it's not an issue with our cast-iron shear valves and steel piping and brass. We take all the different fuels and we soak our products in them and test them."

Bartush noted that the company was making an effort to change various castings to stainless steel in order to alleviate any potential problems with more aggressive fuels, relying on an economy of scale to help keep costs down.

There are few direct ethanol issues with tanks, both steel and fiberglass.

"As far as compatibility goes, there's nothing we're putting into a tank that's going to have a problem," said Charles Frey, Jr., a vice president at Stoystown, Pa.-based Highland Tank. "An advantage is that you're not going to get much water in the tank because ethanol is going to absorb a certain percentage of the water and it provides a little bit of an improvement for fuel quality."

Ethanol at E85 levels can impact various metals like aluminum, plastics and rubber. This OPW overfill valve would have anodized aluminum components for use with high concentrations of ethanol.

Concerns have been raised -- with little foundation -- over the suitability of fiberglass and ethanol. In response, Sullivan D. Curran, P.E., the executive director of the Fiberglass Tank and Pipe Institute forwarded a paper published in Thompson's Underground Storage Tank Guide: "Due to recent state bans on methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), notably in California and New York, the use of ethanol motor fuel (i.e., a maximum of 10 percent ethyl alcohol in gasoline) is expanding in several areas. Many other states, particularly in the Midwest, have used ethanol fuel for many years. The market share of ethanol motor fuel has grown from virtually zero in 1978 to 7 percent in 1986, and to 30 percent today. Although this represents a significant volume of ethanol stored and dispensed through the pre-1978 population of underground storage tanks (USTs), it is comforting to know that fiberglass USTs and piping that store conventional gasoline or MTBE added gasoline should perform equally when handling ethanol."

Curran noted in an NPN interview that issues exist with single-walled fiberglass tanks (related to the type of resin used) and ethanol in concentrations above 30 percent. These issues are not present with double-walled fiberglass tanks or fiberglass pipe. The issue is not that great nationally, since 70 percent of the current fiberglass tanks in service are double walled.


Don Kenney, senior vice president, Franklin Fueling Systems noted that ethanol poses no problem with the range of products the company produces, from line leak detectors and ATGs to sumps and other equipment. "All FE Petro, Incon, EBW, and APT products are compatible with ethanol of any concentration," he said. "There are no alternative fuels today that we are aware of that are not compatible with our products. Although, FE Petro has specific submersible turbine pumps designed for E85 and higher concentrations of alcohol. While we cannot guarantee that we have tested all non-conventional fuel additives, in order to be aware of as many as possible we stay in touch with the industry by meeting with our oil company customers, working with Underwriters Laboratory and other approval agencies and third party consultants to ensure complete testing, and work with our suppliers to provide equipment that meet the requirements of the market place."


As already noted, fiberglass pipe should perform fine with ethanol. "There are no issues at all with ethanol and fiberglass pipe," said Jack Bales, manager, petroleum marketing for Little Rock, Ark.-based Smith Fibercast. "We've done testing up to and including 100 percent ethanol and even 100 percent methanol, which is a tougher chemical. As the changes have occurred with different additives, we've never had to remove our pipe and we don't foresee any future problems. We do testing ourselves, and test to UL 971."

Both fiberglass and flex pipe are tested for 100 percent ethanol under UL971

Questions have been raised about flex pipe in the past several years due to some highly localized but prominent failures. Were there a technical problem with the product (which has by no means been determined), then ethanol might, or might not, be an additional factor. The current UL 971 standard tests both flex and fiberglass pipe with ethanol concentrations up to 100 percent. However, there are some differences in testing methodologies for each and UL is apparently working to revise the standard (though details are scarce). Products tested to the new standard should set the matter to rest.

Rick Whately, president of Smithfield, N.C.-headquartered Environ Products, Inc. noted that his company's flex piping has had no problems with ethanol. "We've peen putting ethanol through our products for a number of years now with no problems," he said. "We also meet the current UL standards, which covers the higher concentrations of ethanol, and we'll test to the revised UL standards which will come through in 2005 and should guarantee a higher quality product from all pipe manufacturers."


Several issues come into play with fuel filters and the conversion to an ethanol blended fuel. There is a sediment issue when an ethanol conversion first takes place. Ethanol acts as a cleaning agent, breaking loose built-up sediments from the tank and other areas and leading to an initial period where fuel filters tend to clog (the same can also happen in automobiles). After the sediment has worked its way out, water becomes a consideration.

"With ethanol, water stays suspended instead of dropping out like it does in neat gas," said Michael Gruca, product engineer for West Salem, Ill.-based Champion Laboratories, Inc. "The alcohol will carry that water and you can burn a certain amount of it, but if you get too much the engine can't handle it. With our water sensitive filters, when you use neat gas there's a polymer in there that is triggered by water and expands to plug the filter. If you use that filter in an alcohol environment, water bonds with the alcohol and goes right through, so we had to develop a phase separation filter that uses two separate chemicals that together react when there's too much water. One chemical gels and the other swells and starts to block the flow, so that the marketer is aware that there's a problem in the tank."

Higher concentrations of ethanol also potentially pose few problems.

"The main thing with a filter is to make sure it's compatible with the fuel, whether it's straight ethanol or biodiesel or whatever," said Gruca. "We do testing, and we also work with the vendors who make sensitive components, such as those made out of rubber, to make sure that they are compatible. A lot of times it has to be UL approved on top of that, so we work with UL to verify compatibility. I feel comfortable that our filters will work with straight ethanol if needed. The only thing there, is that you're looking for a tighter media in the two-micron range compared to the 10 microns we offer now, and the filter will clog faster. We have no trouble producing this media, but we're working with our customers to see if that's really needed."


As mechanical devices, dispensers have a variety of components made out of a variety of materials. There are no problems where ethanol is added at oxygenate levels, but E85 is a different story.

"We recognize that there's a growing interest in E85, given the potential outcome of the energy bill pending right now," said Scott Negley, Austin, Texas-headquartered Dresser Wayne's manager, dispenser products. "Our standard dispenser line is not compatible with E85 today. Some of the metals require special treatments and some of the seals need to be specialized to meet the compatibility requirements for that type of fuel." Negley noted similar problems with biodiesel over 15 percent concentrations. Although the metal corrosion issue is absent, biodiesel can impact rubber and plastic components like o-rings and seals.

"We're working fairly closely with a third party supplier on a program to establish an upfit package for our existing dispensers," Negley said. "You can take a standard dispenser, and for an incremental fee allow a third party to upfit the dispenser to provide all of the features and function in our main product line for compatibility with high concentrations of ethanol.

The same general issues are faced at Gilbarco Veeder-Root. "We develop equipment to be compatible with all the different types of fuels, and the standard equipment that we sell is good to 10 percent ethanol and 15 percent MTBE," said Mike Liebal, manager, global components engineering for the Greensboro N.C.-based company. "So, all of our standard equipment handles those types of fuels. The reason we set that is so that the end-users switch back and forth between alcohol and non-alcohol fuels, which has a significant impact on the seals and gaskets and such. Beyond that, such as with E85, you have to look at specialized equipment."


A major concern with ethanol is the impact on rubber and plastic components. The hose would logically be a major point of concern, but that doesn't reflect the current state of hose design.

"Ethanol has been around for as long as I've been here, which has been 15 years, and we've been constantly blending materials to be compatible with those fuels," said Jeff Berger, product sales manager for Parker Hannifin Industrial Hose, headquartered in Cleveland. "What we've seen, actually, is that the higher concentrations are easier to handle than the lower concentrations due to the increasing performance of elastomers and plasticizers in the compounds."


Dispenser nozzles, swivel adapters and breakaways generally mirror the other equipment from an ethanol impact standpoint. The nozzle, which is mechanical and made out of light materials like aluminum, has the most vulnerabilities.

"The biggest thing we look for is that we have to evaluate the elastomers to make sure they're compatible with the different fuels and also that there is metal compatibility," said Susan Murdock, OPW's product manager for vapor recovery components. "Our standard products are currently UL approved up to 10 percent ethanol, and now we're going through UL and getting our equipment approved to E85. We make a special nozzle for use with methanol that is nickel plated, which we recommend for E85 applications for the time being, but we're working on UL approval for E85 with our standard nozzle."

Short of E85, the transition to ethanol is a fairly painless process. As long as the ethanol industry can deliver the required quantities and it can be integrated with the national distribution system without adding too much to the cost (significant concerns at this point), the mandate should be fairly painless for retailers.

EPAC (Ethanol Producers And Consumers) organized as a non-profit organization in 1991, with a thirteen person Board of Directors to oversee and guide activities. Membership includes individuals, businesses and organizations in over 26 states and 3 foreign countries.