In Focus
July 2015

Video review: Usage of harmful/illegal chemical compounds in gasoline blending in China

By Samita Sridhar Kamath, Intern, ACFA

In recent years, an increased number of cases have been observed in which harmful chemical compounds are being blended into gasoline. While these chemicals are a cheap source of octane, they pose detrimental effects to human health, the environment and engine performance. China is one such case of prominence wherein the problem of prohibited additives being blended into gasoline has become a cause for worry. This issue was addressed in a CCTV documentary video early this year. Below is a review of the video.

Vehicle emission control in order to improve air quality has been emphasized in the Chinese government work report. Regardless, there are firms trying to save on costs by employing illegal methods of gasoline blending. In Binzhou City and Dongying city of Shandong province there are countless refinery plants producing gasoline. Amongst these are some rather questionable plants that blend gasoline with illegal substances. Mr. Wang an employee of such a plant was interviewed and he pointed out that the two tanks of volume 600 cubic metres were his equipment to produce gasoline. He also commented that he sold more than 1000tons every month at best and several hundred at worst.

Mr. Wang remarked that no technical skill was needed to blend gasoline, as it was a considerably straightforward process. There is an even simpler method for blending, which involves blending components directly in a tanker and transporting the finished product to the gas station for sale. The blended gasoline is sold at 4500CNY/ ton as compared to normal gasoline that is sold at 65000 CNY/ton. Hence, blended gasoline is not only cheaper to produce, but also passes the National Standard tests. Adding to despair is the fact that there is no visually conceivable difference between the two types of gasoline.

The blended gasoline normally contains about 10-20% of Naphtha along with MTBE and aromatics. Naphtha, also called crude gasoline, is the primary product in gasoline production. It isn’t directly used as vehicle fuel due to its low octane number, low combustion heat value and its high contribution to air pollution.  

Mr. Zhang Jianrong, the Secretary General of National Petroleum Product and Lubricating Oil Standardization technical committee said that blended Naphtha and MTBE couldn’t produce qualified gasoline, which calls for other additives to be introduced in the blend. It was found that in gasoline production plants in Dinging and Binzhou, it is quite common to blend naphtha and anti-knock reagent. Shandong Lushenfa Chemical plant is one such example wherein a simple blend of aromatics, naphtha, MTBE C5 and so on can produce up to 30,000tons of gasoline every month.

This gasoline is cheap and passes the national standards test as the current national standard only tests for octane number, sulphur, and benzene contents instead of precisely testing for the components present in each sample of gasoline. This is precisely the loophole that these illegal gasoline production plants are exploiting.

An increasing number of plants are producing blended gasoline and the number of additives is correspondingly burgeoning. Shandong Kenlifengyuan is a local large-scale chemical plant that produces 500,000-600,000 tons of gasoline annually. Their products are approved by national standards are accepted by gas stations. Mr. Zhu from Fengyuan Chemical presented National IV and V gasoline samples but was cagey about how they were produced. When the gasoline sample was tested, methylal accounted for 7.85%. Further tests at the Chemistry and Chemical College of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences confirmed the existence of methylal in the gasoline sample.

Methylal is a colourless, volatile and flammable liquid used as pesticide, leather and car lubricant. It isn’t permitted to be present in gasoline according to the national standard. However, the tests for the national standard do not specifically test for the presence of methylal. Zhang Jianlong said that methylal could cause rubber parts swelling and oil pipes leakage, damage vehicles and bring about security issues.

A reporter found that there were some two hundred plants in the Shandong province that produced blended gasoline. An offshoot of such businesses is the concept of training schools that instruct in blending methods. Mr. Liu, a technician in such a school in Zibo has trained eight hundred people. When questioned about this line of work, he said, “You can blend whatever you want, including gasoline, diesel and lubricant. Training fee is CNY 6000 for 5 days.”

Professor He Fujian from Chemistry and Chemical College of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences worries that the wide use of blended gasoline could have pejorative effects on the environment. If released into the air, it will cause deterioration in air quality and resultantly worsen public health. The Chinese government is gradually recognizing the problem and taking measures to mitigate the issue. The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine has directed a Shandong local agency to inspect new plants under suspicion and set new test standards for harmful substances. Furthermore, China’s largest refiner Sinopec Corp. has released additional test parameters for gasoline purchased from third parties. However, more attention needs to be paid to this issue by Chinese policymakers to ensure the mitigation and eventual eradication of this issue.

The Chinese experience is of prominence to other countries, particularly in Asia due to both direct and indirect implications of the blended gasoline produced in China. Countries importing gasoline from China need to be aware of the possibility that the gasoline they are buying might contain harmful or illegal chemicals since this is detrimental to vehicles, humans and the environment and contributes to higher emission levels. It is possible that Chinese gasoline imports, which might have been competitive in the past due to cheap blends, are now restored to their actual value. Importers within China are also affected by the stricter regulations/ parameters for imports of gasoline into China.

It is important to realize that this issue isn’t unique to Chinese markets. Blending harmful additives into gasoline is being practiced in many countries. Vietnam for instance, found high levels of SBA in the gasoline imports from Singapore. The tests and new standards being implemented by the Chinese government should act as a yardstick for other countries. A global issue demands global efforts to ensure safer and better gasoline standards and quality.

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