Oil Prices Drive Push For Alternative Fuels

31/08/2004 12:00:00 AM
As the world’s oil supplies dwindle, alternatives must be found. FRED LUNJEVICH investigates one. 

NATIONAL Geographic summed it up best in its June lead article: “The end of cheap oil”.

On August 13, light crude oil prices hit an unprecedented $US46.65 a barrel before closing the day on $46.58, up $1.08, or 2.4% on the day.

With the oil reserve finish line coming into view, the resulting higher cost of fossil fuel means alternative fuel sources are being sought now, more than ever.

Sources like biodiesel have been used for sometime, mainly in a research context, but it is now gaining more traction in the fuel market.

What is biodiesel?

Simply put, it is a sustainable fuel made from vegetable oil. A simple chemical reaction converts the oil into methyl ester — the biodiesel component, and glycerine.

Consequently, the carbon dioxide produced when biodiesel is burnt is the same amount the next season’s crop of canola will use as it grows, while other noxious exhaust emissions, such as sulphur compounds, are greatly reduced.

It is reported to provide better engine lubrication, even cleaning out dirt and other deposits left in the fuel system by oil-based diesel.

Associate Professor Ralph Sims, director of the Centre for Energy Research at Massey University, has been researching biodiesel since 1976.

He says present oil prices have led to him fielding much more questions about biodiesel.

“Now that oil prices are at the level they were when we started our research, the biodiesel subject is very topical.”

He and his research team experimented with many oil crops before settling on oilseed rape as the best option.

“It grows from Auckland to Southland, it’s easy to harvest and it has a good oil yield. That is why it is often used in Germany and other parts of Europe.

“The only problem with vegetable oils is that it costs money to harvest. So we started using tallow because vegeatble oils and animal fats are fairly similar. Animal fats are cheaper as they are a natural by-product of the meat processing industry,” he says.

No engine adjustments need to be made to use biodiesel.

“You can run it on biodiesel one day and diesel the next and the engine wouldn’t know it,” says Prof Sims. “It mixes with diesel in any proportion.”

Biodiesel doesn’t perform as well in cold temperatures, but Prof Sims says a 4:1 blend of diesel to biodiesel would solve that problem.

“Earth Race want to run a powerboat around the world and run it entirely on biodiesel,” he says.

“Biodiesel is good in a marine context, because spills turn in to fish food instead of toxic slicks that organic diesel produces.”

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) suggest tour operators in Fiordland and the Bay of Islands use the product to protect those sensitive marine environments. Another suggestion is that biodiesel could be used to power Auckland buses.

Prof Sims agrees biodiesel would be valuable in our cities.

“According to recent figures, 300 people die in Auckland from respiratory diseases caused by vehicle emissions.

“Our research has served its purpose. Now the technical issues are resolved it’s just a matter of solving the commercial issues.”

The Employers and Manufacturers Association is curious as to why biodiesel hasn’t been fully explored.

“Biodiesel in New Zealand could probably compete on an even footing with petroleum-based diesel at around $US35 a barrel for oil,” says EMA chief executive Alasdair Thompson.

“However, instead of encouraging the adoption of renewable transport fuel blends, like biodiesel and ethanol, the Government appears fixated on the discredited Kyoto Protocol.”

He says it’s ironic that countries like Australia and the United States are well ahead of us in the introduction of renewable transport fuels, yet they have no intention of signing the protocol.

“The ironies run deep since the feedstocks here for making such as biodiesel from waste animal fats and vegetable oils are potentially far better than for most others.

“The use of biodiesel also results in less particulate and carbon gas emissions; New Zealand needs to seen to be walking the green talk on this issue.

“We want to know what the Government is planning to do to introduce biodiesel blends to help offset the price spikes that seem likely to become the norm for oil.”

EECA senior advisor for renewable energy Elizabeth Yeaman says there is still some hesitation by the private sector to invest in biodiesel production.

“Interested parties are looking at the long term viability of producing biodiesel,” she says.

“If you are going to invest in a biodiesel plant you want to know how profitable it will be 10-15 years on.

“We are doing all that we can to push those fuels to meet National Energy Efficiency Conservation Targets for Renewable Energy.

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