Guest Article: Matthew Flynn, a researcher in biofuels from Birmingham University, and Ian Moore, a local mechanic and Birmingham FoE volunteer, report on their new initiative to bring biodiesel to Birmingham.

Inspired by our May Bank Holiday weekend trip with Birmingham Friends of the Earth to the Centre for Alternative Technology, we hit upon the idea of holding a biodiesel workshop to demonstrate how diesel vehicle owners can turn waste household frying oil into a safe, clean and environmentally friendly alternative to petro-diesel.

Biodiesel naturally contains nearly zero sulphur, reduces some tailpipe pollutants and is a superior lubricant. It is safely and easily biodegradable and can even be used as a solvent to help clean up fossil oil spills. What’s more, it doesn’t contribute as much to greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional petrol or diesel, because the carbon dioxide released when biodiesel burns is taken out of the atmosphere when the plants used to make it are grown.

Biodiesel can either be blended or fully substituted without engine modification. Owing to its high viscosity compared to petro-diesel, biodiesel must either be thinned prior to use or heated before it reaches the engine. Our workshop demonstrated both options, which can use new or waste vegetable oil.

The science bit
In the first method was demonstrated in small batch quantities and took about 1 hour. The oil undergoes a chemical process called “esterification” to remove glycerine, which would otherwise gum up the diesel engine’s injectors. Biodiesel produced this way can be poured straight into the fuel tank and the glycerol (Warning: don’t put the glycerol in your tank!) can be used to make liquid soap.

Ian’s converted ‘vegi-van’ served to illustrate the second method, which involves fitting the vehicle with a heat exchanger and secondary fuel tank. The engine is started on conventional diesel and shortly after switched over to the now heated vegetable oil.

The nitty-gritty
DIY conversion kits to run on ‘straight’ vegetable oil cost about £400, rising to £800 if you have one fitted, but you can put your own biodiesel production kit together for about £100. Ian’s conversion has cost just £40 so far!

Vegetable and biodiesel blends can be bought for less than the price of forecourt petro-diesel, although delivery can be expensive if you buy mail order. A number of mainstream vehicle manufacturers promote some of their models as compatible with blends of biodiesel but it is not recommended for use on ‘brand new’ vehicles at this early stage in its development.

Biodiesel is not illegal but it must meet the standard EN24214 to maintain vehicle warranties and you MUST pay Road Fuel Duty (currently 27p litre).

The UK biodiesel industry is currently very small. Producing biodiesel costs (pre-tax) about twice as much as fossil diesel, depending on feedstock (waste frying oil is cheaper than agriculturally- sourced oil). Friends of the Earth favours a national renewable transport fuel obligation as the best way to kick start the market.

In July 2002, the Government cut the duty rate for biodiesel by 20p/litre compared to that of ultra low-sulphur diesel. Lower duty rates, such as are common in the EU and elsewhere in the world, or abolishing the tax would help biodiesel become competitive at the pumps. More small business would be able to start making their own fuel and farmers could grow and harvest the necessary crops.

The EU Biofuels Directive should increase uptake of biodiesel by requiring the UK and other European countries to set indicative targets for the use of biofuels. The EU’s reference targets are for 2% by 2005 and 5.75% by 2010 of our transport fuel to come from renewable sources, including biodiesel, bioethanol and potentially biogas.

The future?
BP has recently estimated that there are some 1.15 trillion barrels, equivalent to 40 years’ worth, of oil left in the world. The fossil fuel economy is becoming ever more precarious. Rising carbon dioxide emissions from transport threaten to derail our efforts to curb the effects of worsening climate change. Oil will become scarcer, more inaccessible, more fought over, and more costly as the century wears on. Against this backdrop biofuels, the original solar power, have an important role to play breaking our unsustainable addiction to oil.

That said, biofuels are not a cure-all for our transport problems. Their development must go hand in hand with measures to reduce overall demand for fuel through, for example, improving public transport, promoting walking and cycling, and significantly raising vehicle fuel-efficiency.

We want to get a local biofuels user group off the ground in the West Midlands, to share knowledge and experience and help others learn to make and use their own biodiesel safely and legally.

Local biodiesel outlets are crucial. The Rix’s chain started two years ago and now has over a hundred filling stations and sixteen other commercial distributors throughout the UK. Tesco stocks biodiesel at its Hatfield branch; Sainsbury supplies it through its Greenwich store and is looking to supply a further seven stores. One of Friends of the Earth’s Climate Challenges for 2004 is to get more local garages and supermarkets stocking biodiesel, so we hope to work with FoE on this too.

More Information
Ian and Matthew have put together a comprehensive briefing on biodiesel. For your free copy contact them by email at or leave a message with Birmingham FoE on 0121 632 6909.