Adulterated fuel caused vehicle fires, university researchers find

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Ethanol and methanol added illegally to increase octane levels caused fuel pipes to leak


This picture taken on October 27, 2011 shows a man inspecting a motorcycle which, on circulation minutes ago, is almost completely destroyed by fire on a street in downtown Hanoi.

Adulterated fuel caused most of the vehicle fires reported around the country since last year, researchers at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology have said.

In a report released Wednesday (May 16) they said mixing methanol and ethanol with gasoline, an illegal trick used to increase octane levels, caused fuel pipes to deteriorate and leak, causing the fires.

Earlier, at a conference on April 26, the government had said there was no evidence the fires were caused by adulterated fuel.

The latest tests were done by the university's Refinery and Petrochemical Technology Research Center (RPTC) and Internal Combustion Engine Laboratory.

The researchers found that adulterated gasoline caused fires when it came into contact with heat generated by a vehicle engine, friction from braking, and electric sparks caused by a short circuit.

Vietnam's methanol imports rose from 52,000 tons in 2008 to more than 80,000 tons last year.

The researchers also found other possible causes for the fires.

The second was a short circuit that caused plastic parts in the vehicle to ignite.

The third was placing flammable objects like lighters and perfumes beneath the seat, and having objects like plastic bags and cloth clinging to the exhaust pipe.

During tests on motorbikes using gasoline mixed with methanol and ethanol, the researchers found that at many spots near the engine the temperature was 10-20 degrees Celsius higher than in vehicles using unadulterated fuel.

The conclusion ties in with what Vietweek discovered last January: Many tanker drivers and their accomplices siphoned off gasoline and replaced it with other liquids while on the way from depots to retail stations.

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More than 100 cars and motorbikes have been destroyed or damaged since early 2011, with the latest incident happening last Tuesday when a Honda Civic car burnt down to charred metal on Ho Chi Minh City's Vo Van Kiet Street.

The driver, Tran De, said he was driving when he suddenly felt his eyes burning. He pulled over and found a fire spreading from the fuel pipe. He and some passers-by attempted to put out the fire but failed.

Vietnam has more than 32 million registered bikes and 1.8 million cars.

Experts hail findings

Nguyen Anh Duc, deputy director of the Vietnam Petroleum Institute, said he was in full agreement with the HCMC Technology University's findings.

"Besides methanol, a number of other chemicals may be added to gasoline to make higher profits but also increase the threat of fire," he said.

Hanoi-based automobile engineer Nguyen Le Ninh said methanol is highly combustible and vaporized methanol, which is heavier than air, would linger in the vehicle and burst into flames when ignited.

Motorbikes had caught fire even when parked because the electrical system in many modern bikes never turns off to ensure the vehicles' electronic devices continue to function, he said.

Earlier, in its "preliminary" investigation results on April 26, the government said there were five reasons for the vehicle fires: "electrical short circuit, technical problems, carelessness, collisions with other vehicles, and arson."

It promised a "national-level" study by several ministries and agencies which would take a year.

Following the latest findings by the university, experts have criticized governmental agencies for trying to "hide" something.

Dinh Ngoc An, dean of the Hung Yen University of Education's mechanical engineering faculty, said: "One of the reasons involves governmental oversight. Accepting [that adulterated gasoline caused the fires] will affect some senior governmental officials."

"The ministries did not come up with a clear conclusion. Everything was hidden."

He said though the HCMC University of Technology has found clear evidence that adulterated gasoline caused the vehicle fires, the government would not endorse it because another investigation is under way.

If they accept [the former], they would have to call off the nation-level study and that is not what they want, he claimed.

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