Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.04.2002

Grow your own future fuel by Alex Nicol

IT'S COST-EFFECTIVE, recycles waste products, feeds a continually growing market and it needs vegetable oil to make it work. It's biodiesel, an environmentally friendly replacement for petro-diesel, and it has arrived in Australia.

Biodiesel is made from a combination of vegetable oil, animal fats, ethanol or methanol and a catalyst. Besides the fuel, it produces Glycerol and the fertiliser potassium sulphate as by-products.

The most cost-effective raw material for its manufacture is recycled cooking oil and tallow, says Adrian Lake, a director of Biodiesel Consultancy. But Mr Lake adds that the commonly used cooking oils have a gel point that is too high for normal use, so the addition of a vegetable oil, such as canola, is essential to produce a fuel that will be troublefree in all climates.

"It's not just canola that could find an outlet in this fuel but the whole range of vegetable oils, sunflower, soy, linola," he says.

Two test plants, one on the NSW central coast and the other at Moama in Victoria, are currently feeding a trickle of this 21 st century fuel into a 14 billion litre a year market. Mr Lake acknowledges that it will take a massive investment boost and probably some assistance from the government, but points to success in the US and Europe as a sign of things to come.

"I expect that we'll have a service station in Newcastle selling 100 per cent biodiesel in the near future," he says. "In Germany 950 service stations offer the fuel and in the US it's widely available either straight or in a blend with the traditional fuel"

Mr Lake says that the great advantage of biodiesel is that it can be used either in the pure form or in any blend with the traditional fuel without requiring any modification to the engine. "In fact," he says, "in the United States it's used in a 2 to 5 per cent blend with low sulphur diesel fuel to compensate for the loss of lubricating capacity in the low sulphur fuel"

And, while a biodiesel industry at full capacity could use all of the current Australian canol a crop, Mr Lake believes that the answer will come from a vegetable oil crop that could be grown in conditions unsuitable for canola and so increase the area where an oilseed crop would find a place in the rotation.

At current world oil prices biodiesel sells at a few cents a litre discount to the standard fueL "That's because there is no excise on biodiesel;' says Mr Lake, indicating that future government reaction to the fuel will playa vital role in its development.

At present any blend of biodiesel and the traditional fuel attracts lOOper cent excise because, in this case, biodiesel is viewed as an additive rather than a fuel in its own right. Elsewhere in the world the amount of excise is determined by the proportion of biodiesel in the blend, and Mr Lake is hopeful that the Federal Government's announced policy of not taxing biofuels will provide the incentive needed fOr capital investment in a major production plant.

Ironically Mr Lake never expects farmers to be users 01 biodieseL "Under the present subsidy system for farm fuel, it would pay them to buy the traditional fuel to grow the crops to make the biofuel," he says, adding that there is interest from the organic farming community keen to ensure that no petrochemicals of any kind make their way on-farm.

Does biodiesel work? Fearnes, a Wagga-based bus service, is currently using it in all its vehicles. It is reportedly using 20,000 litres a week and has had no problems with the changeover nor hitches with the fuel

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