With KFC left without things that go cluck in the
night, perhaps they’ll have lots of leftover corn cobs as well. That
could be useful, as according to some pundits, BioDiesel is the answer
to the world’s problems and dependence on oil, currently lurking
under the sands of countries not all that friendly to the rest of the
automotive world. Don’t rely on fossil fuels, but grow our own and
drive happily into the 22nd century, is the call to the faithful.
The instability of oil supplies to the world’s
greatest gas-guzzling nation has already had an effect on us all. Oil
prices have already been up and down more often than a public lavatory
seat on Songkran, and not just through the Middle East situation.
Venezuelan problems, America’s fourth-largest oil supplier, pushed
up the price of fuel for three months. Iraq? Well, say no more. All it
needs is more fuel supply troubles and the increases in oil prices
could push the already struggling US economy back into recession. The
knock-on effect will then affect not just the auto industry, but
national economies too. Like ours!
So where is BioDiesel right now? In the US, many
truck and bus fleets already run on two diesel fuel alternatives,
BioDiesel and compressed natural gas (CNG). Research is continuing for
other fuel sources as well, with biotechnology making it possible to
extract ethanol fuel from farm products like corn husks, long
discarded as waste. The farms are giving the world renewable energy
sources - surely we should be embracing this technology? However,
BioDiesel, natural gas, and ethanol are finding it difficult to
challenge the very well entrenched oil industry with its (currently)
relatively low prices and wide-world delivery infrastructure.
This is where BioDiesel should seem to have the
inside running as it can be pumped into service stations’
underground diesel tanks with no modification necessary. Diesel
engines do not need to be modified to run it either (in fact, Rudolph
Diesel used peanut oil to power the engine he debuted at the 1900
World’s Fair). BioDiesel can also be made from any fat or vegetable
oil - even used cooking oils, though the usual source is from the US
second largest crop, soybeans. Environmental benefits are reported as
impressive, with 100 percent BioDiesel eliminating sulfur emissions
and cutting particulate matter and some other pollutants by about 50
However, there are also downsides, with the low
sulfur content adding to the wear factors in diesel engines, though
this can be overcome by the use of special oils and additives but at
more expense. BioDiesel also increases emissions of one smog-producing
pollutant, nitrogen oxide, or NOx. Although technical solutions can
partially overcome this problem, such as adjusting engine timing,
environmentalists are yet to fully embrace BioDiesel.
BioDiesel has also not done as well in the
government fuel sources, as was hoped. The US government’s 1992
Energy Policy Act was amended in 1998 to give credit for BioDiesel use
and encouraged the federal and state governments to run their vehicles
on alternative fuels. Sales of BioDiesel multiplied 30 fold since 1999
to 15 million gallons (56 million litres), but the federal government
requires only that the fleets run on a mix of 20 percent BioDiesel, 80
percent petroleum. With BioDiesel as much as double the cost, and
taxed at the same rate as petroleum diesel, the agencies seldom buy
more than the 20 percent mix.
Perhaps the way to move is seen by some in the
industry as CNG. Public transport, powered by CNG is cleaner, emitting
virtually no particulate matter, toxic chemicals, or sulfur and 50
percent less NOx, though it does emit greenhouse gases. Another plus,
for the US at least, is that 85 percent of natural gas consumed in the
United States is produced domestically, with nearly all the rest
coming from Canada. The 130,000 CNG vehicles on US roads last year
displaced 124 million gallons of gasoline, and the sector is growing
10 percent a year. Natural gas passenger cars and pickup trucks are
now available too. Another attractive aspect is that CNG is around 25
percent cheaper than gasoline.
However, start-up costs and inconvenience are not
inconsiderable. A CNG small passenger car in America is 60 percent
more than a petrol-engined one. Commercial CNG engines are still
$20,000 to $50,000 more than that of a traditional diesel engine. CNG
pumps are also less available than standard gasoline and diesel.
Finding a station that pumps CNG can be a chore, especially when the
gauge reads zero pressure!
And that gets us back to moonshine! Corn alcohol.
The 2.13 billion gallons of ethanol produced last year, up 20 percent
from the previous year, still amounted to less than 2.6 percent of US
oil imports. More importantly, from the long term view, is the fact
that ethanol is an additive, and not a replacement, generally mixed 10
percent with gasoline, called gasohol. This was available in Thailand,
but at last count was going to be phased out. It would appear that
ethanol is not the saviour of the world. Let’s just stick to
drinking it when times are tough!
So where do the petrol companies stand in all this?
The Royal Dutch Shell Group’s promised $1 billion for renewable
energy over the next four years fades beside its $24.6 billion capital
investment, mostly in oil and natural gas, in 2002 alone. Industry
watchers say, “These companies don’t want to be left out in the
event that some of these ventures come to fruition but they’re not
holding their breath.” Perhaps we should not either!