Biofuels: liquid gold?

For such a small word, biofuels has generated a lot of controversy. So is it really the energy solution it’s cracked up to be? Peter Batt talks to some veg oil pioneers.


It’s not just with a clear conscience that Dave Welton starts up his VW 1.9 litre turbo diesel camper van. In addition to carbon-neutral motoring, he has the added knowledge that his van has all the power but none of the drawbacks of driving a diesel engine – thanks to biofuels.

Engines running on petrodiesel emit some of the most carcinogenic compounds known to man. But for the most part, Dave’s van now runs on straight vegetable oil – SVO – as becomes obvious from the light aroma of vegetable fat that fills the air once his engine gets started.

“I had it MOT’d around three months ago,” he said, “and the garage thought it was very funny that the exhaust smelled like chip fat. When it gets going, though, there’s much less of a smell and, personally, I prefer it to diesel.”

Dave, who lives near Saundersfoot, Carmarthen Bay, is one of the relatively few people aware of the ease with which standard engines, petrol and diesel, can be adapted to run on biofuel.

He converted his van to run on SVO in May last year believing it will reduce his carbon emissions to virtually zero. And he has never looked back.


Conversion kit

Dave bought a one-tank conversion kit for around £650 – “it was one of the cheaper ones” – from Veg Oil Motoring in Pembrokeshire, and spent a similar amount having it fitted.

The kit is made by German company Elsbett and is essentially designed to heat the oil to make it less gloopy. This thins it out and optimises its flow through diesel injection systems. The single tank means the vehicle can run exclusively on veg oil, though Dave can still fill up on diesel in the unlikely event that he can’t get his hands on SVO.

And though the tiger in his tank is a vegetarian, there is certainly no lack of power. “It’s fantastic,” he said. “It runs very smoothly. I probably do a maximum of 12,000 miles a year, and I have no problem on short or long journeys.

“There is really no difference in performance at all. I would certainly recommend it to anybody.” Fellow SVO user Graham Lang, from Tegryn in Pembrokeshire, spent more than £1,000 to convert his 1.4 litre diesel K-registration Citroen three years ago, and confirms Dave’s view on performance.

“We do up to 15,000 miles a year: we’ve driven over to Eastbourne, London and Suffolk, and we’ve never had any problems. There’s simply no downside – in terms of performance, it’s the same, if not better.”



His vehicle no longer emits the high level of particulates – soot, to you and me – oxides of sulphur and ‘volatile organic compounds’ associated with petrodiesel engines.

And in keeping with the two most promoted biofuels, bioethanol and biodiesel, reliability is as good, if not better, on SVO than its more illustrious petroleum counterpart. Dave also reckons he saves around 20 to 30 pence on every litre of fuel, so he expects the conversion to pay for itself in around two years.

All in all, the switch has been easy, says Dave: “I think a lot of people don’t believe you can run your car on vegetable oil. I do my best to convince people, but they are a bit sceptical.”

Dave and Graham’s experience of using SVO illustrates just how close in technological terms we already are to reducing carbon emissions. This should not be a surprise: back in 1898, Rudolf Diesel designed his internal combustion engine to run on peanut oil. And Nikolaus August Otto’s forerunner to the petrol engine ran on ethanol, as did Henry Ford’s original Model T car, which was produced from 1903 to 1926.


Delivered to your door

Finding somewhere that sells the biofuel, however, is a little bit trickier. At the moment, if you want to run your diesel on vegetable oil with the fuel duty pre-paid, you could visit the small number of suppliers to fill up or, alternatively, see if they deliver to your home.

If this is too much trouble, you could simply buy pure vegetable oil from the nearest supermarket, but you would need to keep your receipts, register with Customs & Excise and pay fuel duty on your purchase retrospectively. While running your car on SVO is completely legal, failing to declare and pay the fuel duty is not.

Getting hold of either of the two main biofuels is also getting easier. Biodiesel, which is effectively vegetable oil processed to run on unmodified diesel engines, is very popular in parts of Europe – anyone who has driven their diesel car across France recently is likely to have filled their tank with EN590, a blend of 95% petrodiesel and 5% biodiesel. This and other biodiesel products are available from a number of independent retailers in the UK.

Daniel Blackburn, who runs Veg Oil Motoring, argues that vegetable oil is the more environmentally-friendly fuel. “To make biodiesel, you start off with vegetable oil and then put it through a chemical process that requires energy and other chemical reactants, some of which are usually produced from fossil fuel bases.

“When vegetable oil is such a good fuel, why go through the bother of chemically modifying it?”



Meanwhile, petrol engines can run on bioethanol, an alcohol fuel produced commercially from agricultural crops, such as wheat, sugar cane, sugar beet and other forms of biomass. According to Green Spirit Fuels, one hectare of wheat produces around 29,000 miles of bioethanol motoring, enough to take a car around the equator and still have 4,000 miles of fuel left.

Silently, a 5% biofuel to 95% petrol mix is developing into a standard fuel at Britain’s service stations, though a richer standard known as E85 – 85% bioethanol mixed with 15% petrol – is emerging for ethanol optimised vehicles.

Last year, Morrisons supermarket starting selling Harvest BioEthanol E85 from five stores in Somerset to coincide with the launch in the UK of Saab’s 9-5 BioPower flex-fuel car. Morrisons also sells E85 at three stores in Norfolk and two in Suffolk. Somerset and Norfolk are two of the counties where Ford is working with regional biofuel groups to establish flex fuel vehicle sales and bioethanol filling stations.

Major car manufacturers, notably Saab and Ford, are introducing bioethanol versions of their standard line-ups. And these are in a very different league to the eccentric-looking electric cars which have been hitting the news: they look every bit the typical mainstream car, but they pack a significantly greater performance punch compared with their petrol equivalents. Not surprisingly, bioethanol is commonly used in the motor racing industry.


Flex-fuel engines

The launch of the Saab 9-3 BioPower range of cars this year means the company now offers an alternative fuel engine choice in every model in its line up. Ford is looking to follow suit, and it has been heavily promoting the Focus Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV), which can run on bioethanol or petrol in any mix in the same fuel tank.

The promotion of new ‘flex-fuel’ models by major car manufacturers is likely to accelerate the availability of bioethanol at the pumps. In fact, there is every sign that this is becoming big business. Wessex Grain subsidiary Green Spirit Fuels has opened one of Britain’s first bioethanol plants in the county, at Henstridge in Somerset, and this is expected to convert 340,000 tonnes of locally-grown wheat into 131m litres of bioethanol every year.

The industry must set a course for considerable growth if it is to meet the government’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, announced last autumn, which states that 5% of all car fuel must come from renewable sources by 2010. Green Spirit has very ambitious plans, having secured land for another plant in Grimsby to create more than 200,000 tonnes of ethanol each year from an estimated 650,000 tonnes of wheat.

Green Spirit Fuel finance director Arthur Llewellyn says: “The UK will need ten production plants like the one in Henstridge to meet the government’s requirements.”

Transport generates around a quarter of Britain’s CO2 emissions, with around 80% of that generated by road vehicles, and biofuels have been hailed as a possible long-term route to low-carbon motoring.


Impact on food

But looking beyond the UK, the environmental and economic side-effects of industrial-scale biofuel production has raised a whole series of thorny issues around biodiversity, water supply, deforestation and food poverty.

In some countries, thousands of acres of rainforest have been replaced with palm oil plantations, as companies seek to cash in on the rapidly increasing market for fuel crops. Some claim that constraints on supply mean it is naive to believe biofuels could be anything other than a niche market, while campaigners such as writer George Monbiot have called for a moratorium on biofuel development while the infrastructure is put in place to avoid unsustainable environmental destruction.

However, its supporters and even the UN, which voiced concerns on land rights and biofuels’ impact on food prices, believe that these claims may lead us to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Virgin boss Richard Branson, who has raised the prospect that biofuels could be developed for the aviation industry in five to 10 years, firmly believes they form part of the answer to tackling climate change. He said: “If we are going to produce biofuel on a big enough scale to make it part of the mix, then Europe should take a lead in setting standards for how biofuel is produced and make sure that production is sustainable.

“The production of biofuel in the US is doubling every year and the companies making it are getting better and better at producing it efficiently. But there will be limits to how much biofuel we can produce unless we improve the technology of its production. If that happens, and I believe it will, then I think biofuel could account for 20% of all fuel used in Europe and the US by 2020.”

Back in south Wales, Daniel Blackburn promotes vegetable oil as the real carbon neutral alternative to petroleum-based fuels because he says it is easier, cheaper and less energy-intensive to produce than the other biofuels.


Second-generation biofuels

But he accepts that vegetable oil, like all of the so-called ‘first generation’ biofuels, are a short-term fix while ‘second generation’ biofuels are developed. These potentially offer greater energy efficiency by using the woody ligno-cellulose extracted from forestry and agricultural products. So crops will in future be used to generate a double yield: instead of just taking the grain from wheat, for instance, to create starch and gluten, the woodier parts of the crop would also be harvested for fuel.

This has the added benefit of being less labour intensive, and removes the conflict between food and energy crops. And because biofuel can be made from virtually any growing plant or tree, a great deal of research is now going into crops not considered before.

D1 Oils, for instance, is researching the oil produced from the nut, branch and stem of the jatropha tree, which thrives on marginal land not suitable for food crops in Africa and Asia. This and other research projects are in their early stages, but promise a lot. Watch this space.

• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in May 2007



Peter a journalist with 30 years experience of freelance writing, UK national newspaper and magazine production roles, and business development. In 2007, he developed and launched a mainstream-style green consumer magazine in the UK, called GreenerLiving, as a means of promoting sustainable change ‘within the system’. GreenerLiving closed during the post-crash recession, but Peter went on to become managing editor of the international ethical business title, Ethical Performance. However, Peter felt that the CSR sector has not succeeded in changing corporate priorities anywhere near fast enough, and so I decided to leave the treadmill of corporate employment and debt accumulation to focus on my own projects. Now poorer but a billion million times happier, he writes on political, economic and social issues – usually seriously, but sometimes as satire. He's currently writing Psychopath Economics, a book about the logic of social and economic power, belief systems, and the rise and fall of societies. Peter is convinced that ordinary people must educate themselves and exercise their economic leverage if we are to avoid social and environmental destruction.

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