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If you’ve ever been to the petrol kiosk, you’ll probably

recall seeing several choices of petrol you can pump –

usually 92, 95 or 98. I recall asking my mother about the
number and my mom just told me that the higher the
number, the better it is, the more you have to pay. What
do those numbers mean and why does diesel not have
them? To understand the numbers well, I need to first tell
you a little more about the petrol engine.
Both the petrol and diesel engines are internal combustion
engines, which mean that the source of energy is
combusted within the engine itself instead of externally
(think steam engine, where coal is the source of energy to
heat up steam in the engine, providing power). However,
one important difference between petrol and diesel
engines is that petrol requires a spark plug to ignite the
air-petrol mixture at specific times whereas a diesel does
not as it would self-combust at the right time when
compressed, due to the mechanics of the engines which I
shall not go into.
The problem arises in the petrol engine when the
compressed air-petrol mixture ignites by itself
prematurely before the spark plug ignites it at the right
time, causing it to explode/detonate in the combustion
chamber (Taylor, 1985). This produces a knocking sound
in the engine, thus this problem is called engine knocking.
Knocking damages the engine because it causes a rapid
pressure rise in the combustion chamber and deposits
undesirable compounds in the engine, affecting the engine

Photo taken from

Petrol contains a mix of octane (hydrocarbons with 8
carbon atoms) and heptane (7 carbon atoms). The
numbers 92, 95 and 98 refer to the octane rating of the
petrol, or, the amount of octane there is in the petrol. The
higher the octane rating, the less likely knocking will
occur, because octane burns slower since it has longer-
chained hydrocarbon and is more resistant to igniting
If you wanna find out more about the mechanics of the
petrol engine, check out this video which explains it in
relation to engine knocking pretty
Also, just a fun fact to add on, in places that are higher
altitude, where the air is thinner, gas stations tend to sell
lower-octane rating petrol as ‘regular’ petrol because the
petrol is less-likely to knock since there is less air for the
petrol to auto-ignite before the spark plug ignites it (AAA,
2007). For example in Colorado which is about 1500m
above sea level, ‘regular’ petrol has a rating of 85
whereas at most other US states, the lowest rating
available is 87. In Singapore, the ‘regular’ rating is 92,
which could be due to Singapore’s low-lying position as
an island.
The reason why I would likely to talk about octane rating
is because in my following post, I would tell you guys
about about why is leaded petrol being used in the past
(yup it’s got to do with knocking) and the environmental
consequences of leaded petrol. Stay tuned!
AAA Colorado (2007) Gasoline octane levels in
Colorado. EnCompass Online. 81(2). Retrieved 2014,
October 12
Taylor, C.F. (1985) Internal Combustion Engine in
Theory and Practice (2nd Ed.) Cambridge, MA:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press

Have you heard of leaded petrol? In the 1970s, it was

widespread and almost all petrol used throughout the
world was leaded petrol (Landrigan, 2002). Thankfully,
nowadays it serves only as a reminder of a success of
humankind in taking concrete steps to the environment.
A quick recap on where I left off from last week, high
octane ratings help to prevent engine knocking in high
performance petrol engines, which is basically a
mechanical difficulty car drivers would not wish to
encounter. For more details do read my previous blog post
on the numbers 92, 95 and 98 in the petrol kiosks which
don’t seem to mean anything (to most people anyway)!

Tetraethyllead, or TEL, is a compound containing lead.

Starting in the 1920s, TEL was added to petrol as an
additive due to its effective anti-knock properties, which
allowed increased engine performance (Landrigan, 2002).
However, there was a problem. The use of leaded petrol
contributed to increased lead levels in the atmosphere,
with the levels detected around the world increasing. The
amount of lead in snow deposited on Greenland has risen
sharply, being ~200 times higher in the mid 1960s than
ancient times (Boutron et al., 1991).

Blood lead level also increased with that, as atmospheric

lead could enter the blood stream via inhalation
(Schuhmacher et al., 1996). Lead is highly toxic to
humans, affecting multiple organ systems even at low
levels previously considered safe, as shown through
epidemiological studies (Landrigan, 2002).

Lead enters the blood stream via inhalation or ingestion

and ingestion. A potent neurotoxin, high levels of
exposure can lead to damage to almost all organs and
systems, especially the nervous system, whereas low
levels of exposure can affect psychological and
neurobehavioural functions, and these are particularly
pronounced in young children (Tong et al., 2000).
Preschool lead exposure has even been linked to violent
crimes due to its effect on mental functions (Needleman,

As health concerns and other issues such as evidence of

lead damaging catalytic converters of vehicles, which
remove other toxic pollutants from exhaust, started
surfacing and gaining public attention, governments
around the world started phasing out leaded petrol in the
1990s, many eventually implementing a total ban by the
late 1990s and early 2000s (Landrigan, 2002).
This gradual phasing out of leaded petrol led to a decrease
in mean blood lead level in the US and countries around
the world, as seen from percentage of children with
elevated blood lead levels falling significantly since 1997,
a year after leaded petrol was banned (CDC, 2014).
Anthropogenic lead levels found in snowfall in Greenland
has since decreased also (Boutron et al., 1991), and some
have even attributed decrease in violent crime rates in
numerous countries in North America and Europe to the
banning of leaded petrol since there was a correlation
(Nevin, 2007).

Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are

in fact plans to protect man. – Stewart Udall, American

Thanks to the phasing out of leaded petrol in the 1990s,

TEL in petrol has become a thing of the past, helping to
reduce human exposure to atmospheric lead, improving
the health of people worldwide.

Boutron, C.F., Görlach, U., Candelone J.-P., Bolshov,

M.A. & Delmas, R.J. (1991). Decrease in anthropogenic
lead, cadmium and zinc in Greenland snows since the late
1960s. Letters to Nature. 353 (1996): 153-156

CDC (2014). National Surveillance Data (1997-2012).

Retrieved 2014, October 15 from
Landrigan, P.J. (2002). The worldwide problem of lead in
petrol. Bulletin of the World Health Organisation. 80(10)

Needleman, H. (2004). Lead poisoing. Annu. Rev. Med.

55, 209-222

Nevin, R. (2007). Understanding international crime

trends: the legacy of preschool lead exposure.
Environmental research, 104(3), 315-336.
Schuhmacher, M., Belles, M., Rico, A., Domigo, J.L. &
Corbella, J. (1996) Impact of reduction of lead in gasoline
on the hair and blood lead levels in the population of
Tarragona Province, Spain, 1990-1995. The Science of
the Total Environment 184:203-209