Is BioDiesel just a pile of old corn?

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 percent.

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!

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I asked you to look at this photograph. The clue was that it was not a Cord. In fact this was the Hupmobile Skylark, a six cylinder machine built in 1938. This was the prototype model, but very few made it into production, with estimates being only 320 that made it into production. Interestingly, Hupmobile bought dies and much of the inventory of the by then bankrupt Auburn Automobile company, which was in turn part of E.L. Cord’s empire, which may in part be the reason that the Skylark looked like a scaled down Cord.

So to this week. Who in France pioneered windscreen wipers as a safety feature? Clue - he also patented a gearbox in the 1920’s.

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]

Good luck!

We are not alone!

No, I have not been overtaken by a terminal case of Star Trek, but if you want a good laugh, go to www.

This is a web site in Holland where they are complaining vociferously about the inaction of their police as far as felonies are concerned, as opposed to their overactive policing of speed limits. Apparently, you can walk through the customs at Schipol with less than 3 kg of drugs, because they haven’t got enough rozzers to process the charges paper work. However, they have enough capabilities to keep an army of cameras on poles going and getting the resulting speeding ticket to you in a matter of a day or so. Look up the site and see what they are doing with Constable Plod’s Pentax on a pole.

Chris Bangle’s final bungle?

BMW AG last week relieved their controversial chief stylist Chris Bangle of direct responsibility for BMW brand design and moved him into a senior executive role. On paper this sounds very much like what happens with government officials in Thailand who are moved to ‘inactive posts’! Bangle is probably the only auto stylist to have a web site dedicated to him, called “Stop Chris Bangle”, so you can gather that not everyone has liked his work.

BMW 7 Series

Last year it seemed that Bangle was under fire from all sides. BMW enthusiasts, automotive journalists and even auto executives ripped his redesign of the 7 series - particularly for the high-end shape of the bootlid. Volkswagen design boss Helmut Warkuss, for example, bad-mouthed the BMW flagship as a “bunch of uncoordinated steel plates.”

BMW 5 Series

Bangle also denies that the new 5 series originally had been designed to be a smaller version of the 7 series but was toned down because of harsh criticism of the 7 series. “The 5 series is not a small 7 series,” Bangle said. “That was clear from the beginning on.” However, there are many reports of the prototypes being progressively ‘un-bangled’ before final production.

Bangle has headed up BMW’s styling department for more than 10 years. In that time, he has not only been responsible for the reworking of the 3, 5 and 7 Series, but he has also been involved in the creation of the X5 and X3 off-roaders, the forthcoming 1 Series, the 6 Series coupe and cabrio, the latter officially unveiled at the Detroit Motor Show this year. On top of that, an all new 3 Series is currently under development and expected to hit the European market in 2005.

The fact that Bangle’s far reaching overhaul of BMW’s family identity is now nearly complete is not the only sign that the American’s influence in the boardroom is slipping. Sources have said that the re-engineered and facelifted X5 was originally destined to sport a new nose with radically angled headlamps, not unlike those fitted to the new 5 Series. One insider said he saw the finished model two years ago, but by the time the car was unveiled at last September’s Frankfurt Motor Show, the adventurous look had been mysteriously dropped in favour of a more conservative style. This suggested then, that some in the BMW hierarchy were not too happy.

It was also probably very significant that auto designer Adrian Van Hooydonk arrived in Munich last week with four life size clay mockups of new car designs, airlifted from Los Angeles under tight wraps.

Van Hooydonk is president of Designworks USA, BMW’s design studio in Newbury Park, California and my spies say that he was heading for a week of intensive, secret talks at headquarters over the shape and styling of future models with BMW’s former chief designer Christopher Bangle and executive board members. Van Hooydonk knows that his bosses expect something that is breathtaking, but not as controversial as Bangle’s bootlids.