Power plants: the greenest fuel

For just £1,500, you can convert your diesel car to run on pure, locally grown, cold-pressed rapeseed oil - the greenest fuel there is. So why aren't more drivers doing it? Hester Lacey investigates
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The Independent Online

A former cement works in West Sussex, next to a disused quarry, may seem an unlikely home for a new technology that could revolutionise the way we fuel our vehicles. But this is where Blooming Futures, one of the first companies to introduce a genuinely sustainable and environmentally sound form of biofuel to Britain, is based. The not-for-profit co-operative can convert diesel engines to run perfectly on minimally processed pure plant oil, and then supply the oil. If you run low far from home, you top up on conventional diesel at the nearest filling station.

So far, there have been two biofuel buzz words, hailed by some as little short of miraculous: bioethanol and biodiesel. Bioethanol, produced from sugar cane, wheat or corn, uses fermentation to make ethanol, which can be blended with petroleum fuels or burnt in a pure form in some new cars. Biodiesel, produced from vegetable oils such as palm, soy or rapeseed, is made by breaking down vegetable oil and reforming it into a fuel that powers cars that usually use conventional diesel. However, critics, including George Monbiot, have pointed out that these are, sadly, not as green as they're painted.

To make a significant impact on fossil fuel use would require vast tracts of land to be turned over to growing the raw material needed. Brazil produces around half the world's bioethanol, but it has relatively large amounts of space and few inhabitants. A number of the key crops for producing biodiesel won't grow in northern climates, and the developing world needs its agricultural land to grow food. Such crops would need much water, not to mention vast doses of chemical fertiliser, pesticide and fungicide. And shipping and processing biofuel crops requires energy in itself.

Plenty of research into bioethanol and biodiesel is being carried out by the big petrol companies, who are making much of their desire to go green. But poachers-turned-gamekeepers, who still have a vested interest in turning further vast profits, are perhaps not as keen as they might be on bypassing fossil fuels altogether.

So what is the alternative? Pure plant oil (PPO) uses locally grown, cold-pressed rapeseed, which requires no chemicals or solvent extraction. By-products are seedcake for animal food (often soya-based, from intensively grown, internationally shipped crops) or fuel for new-generation pellet-burning boilers. The oil comes from winter rape, which is harvested at the end of the cropping cycle when most other crops are finished for the season, which makes it an attractive proposition for farmers. The energy footprint of PPO fuel has been estimated at 25 times smaller than that of biodiesel and 50 times smaller than that of bioethanol.

Blooming Futures has spent seven years researching the technology. It has eight members and runs on a shoestring budget. "We wanted to be independent, not industry-led," explains the company's Mat Bulba. "We first looked into biodiesel but we couldn't tie it in to a genuinely sustainable working model." It has attracted the attention of Defra, which has provided support and funding. The technology Blooming Futures uses has already put tens of thousands of plant oil-fuelled cars on the road in Germany, where the system was invented by Elsbett Technologie, originally for developing multi-fuel vehicles in the Second World War. Elsbett has since spent 20 years developing a method of converting car engines to run on plant oil.

Since Blooming Futures began to offer a commercial service in April this year, it has converted around 30 vehicles, including the first of a fleet of bio-taxis. So, if you want your car converted, what are the practicalities? First, it needs to be a model that runs on diesel. Smaller vehicles, including most cars and vans, keep their original fuel tank, with a modified injector system. Larger vehicles need a small additional tank, which is filled with diesel and acts as a starter for the main tank, which takes the plant oil. The engine switches to PPO at the right temperature. Around 70 per cent of diesel engines can be converted, and Blooming Futures offers a secondary warranty on any converted engine. "Some fuel pumps aren't as tolerant as others and we work with models and engines that are already known to run well on pure plant oil," Mat says. In a pinch, converted vehicles will run equally well on conventional diesel or a mixture of diesel and plant oil.

The average cost of converting a car is about £1,500; for larger vehicles, about £3,000. Some places are still available on a Defra-sponsored scheme that covers half the conversion costs for work vehicles in the south-east; the aim is an initial bio-fleet of 50 vehicles.

Blooming Futures can deliver PPO in 1,000-litre drums nationwide; 200-litre drums are also available in the south-east, with hand- or electric pumps to transfer it to your tank.It is around 91p per litre, including VAT, road fuel duty and delivery. Before tax it costs around 50p per litre (buy from a registered seller and they will have filled in the necessary forms; it's also possible to self-register as an individual). At the time of writing, diesel and PPO were on a close par, price-wise; but conventional fuel prices fluctuate and for large-scale hauliers, a larger price gap can make a significant difference to total bills.

Nick Cooper, of Defra's Rural Development Service, who is working with Natural England on a Defra-funded project on farming without fossil fuels, had his Land Rover Discovery converted eight months ago. "I have done about 12,000 miles since and it works very well; there is no power loss and the engine runs more quietly, because there is more lubrication in it."

Pure plant oil has a very good environmental profile, he notes. "It is very local, very traceable, the equipment used to produce it is very simple, it contains few additives and the technology for converting vehicles to use it is well proven. In the longer term, there may be biodiversity issues to do with the growing of oilseed rape, which is difficult to grow organically, but integrated crop management can minimise pesticide use and commercial farmers can take it on board very easily."

Environment minister Ian Pearson adds: "Local initiatives such as the Blooming Futures bio-fleet project show what people can do at a local level. The group provides both a conversion and refuelling service and sourcing British pure plant oil not only reduces air miles, but also creates a sustainable and alternative market. I am pleased that we have been able to support this project through the Environmental Action Fund, which is supporting a range of projects up and down the country that deliver sustainable consumption and production."

Many may recall the 2002 story of the South Wales communities who used cooking oil, bought at supermarkets and poured straight into their cars, to avoid paying fuel tax. This is not a good idea: the tax evasion is illegal and the oil may clog an unconverted engine. However, the Government's plan to introduce a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), scheduled for 2007 or 2008, stating that 5 per cent of road fuel must come from sustainable sources, means that biofuel in some form will have to become standard.

Blooming Futures is investigating the use of plant oil to power generators that can produce electricity and heat. "This is a genuine alternative to fossil fuel, well developed and working effectively," says Mat Bulba. "Once [people] realise the difference between PPO and other biofuels, what many people like about pure plant oil is that there is something positive they can do for the environment that also means they are no longer bound to the fuel companies."

Blooming Futures 01273 462 197; www.bloomingfutures.com

The natural alternatives to fossil fuels

Sugar Cane

Sugar cane grown in Brazil produces half the world's bioethanol. Large tracts of land in countries such as India and Thailand are being turned over to sugar cane. Cultivating sugar cane depletes water tables in drier countries, and Brazilian growers may turn to land covered by rainforest.

Wheat and corn

America's 100th corn ethanol production plant opened in May and by 2007, bioethanol will account for about a fifth of America's corn harvests. The USA is set to overtake Brazil as the world's main producer. However, using corn for fuel has meant shortages, which have pushed up global prices.

Cassava

China hopes to set up an extensive programme of cassava-based bioethanol production.

Palm oil

Malaya and Indonesia, the largest producers, announced jointly in July that they were devoting 40 per cent of their crop to biodiesel. Virgin forest in Borneo is being cut down to make way for palm trees. Goodbye, orang-utans.

Soya

Plantations of soya for biodiesel are displacing forests in south American countries such as Argentina and production is set to rise.

Rapeseed oil

Can be chemically processed to make biodiesel, as well as used in its PPO form as described in the main copy. Rape can be grown worldwide, and if large quantities have to be imported, this makes it subject to the same kind of energy expenditure in transport as more obviously exotic crops.

Switchgrass

A wild grass common in the eastern USA. It can produce twice as much bioethanol acre-for-acre as corn and thrives on poor ground.

Jatropha

Jatropha beans are the main biodiesel cropin southern Africa and are exported by some of the world's poorest nations, including Malawi and Zambia. It is drought-resistant, requires little in the way of pesticides or fertilisers, and can be harvested three times a year.

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