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The great electric vehicle debate rages on... Low carbon, big footprint...?

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I read an interesting little article yesterday on the BBC website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22001356, in which scientists have said that due to the nature of battery production and how the electricity is made, electric vehicles can actually work out far worse for the environment than their oil-powered rivals.

It's not new news, studies (for those who watch Top Gear!) have said since day 1 that the Toyota Prius is one of the worst cars to buy in terms of carbon footprints because of all of the manufacturing and transportation involved in their production... example here... http://helenathegreat.hubpages.com/hub/Prius.

My personal stance is that I'm all in favour of finding ways of saving the environment, but not so that it'll hurt my pocket too. Manufacturers have been searching for YEARS for a viable alternative but, as the conspiracies say, the oil companies can't allow it, but what about a little invention that's been around for 120 years and produces absolutely no pollution? Okay, for some this is seriously old news, but for those few who don't believe me, like the girl who served me tonight in Asda I want to get this off of my chest  ::)

When Rudolf Diesel invented the diesel engine back in 1893 it was a revolution. He designed an engine that ran on vegetable oil. Over time this has got blurred, people have got lazy, governments have got greedy, and people regularly pay silly amounts at the pumps, for what?

Today we had a long day. We drove from Bournemouth to Dover, then went to Bruges, St Omer and Cite Europe before driving back to Bournemouth again. 604 miles. The car averaged a particularly good 50.54mpg... on cooking oil that I bought last night from Asda for £1 a litre. Is that even possible? Put it this way, my car has had nothing but cooking oil in it for the last 4 months now and it's never missed a beat. It runs as smoothly now as it always has. Diesel engines WILL run anything. Vegetable oil, rapeseed oil, sunflower oil, today it was actually running on Crisp 'n Dry  ??? but the point is that it's the components bolted TO the diesel engine that can't handle it. On Xantia's for example, Bosch fuel pumps have no problem. Lucas pumps don't like it because it caused the gasket to leak. 55 litres of bargain basement cooking oil got us to Bruges and back, and it's still registering zero emissions... so what is the whole big deal with electric?!

The world HAS invented a means of transport capable of saving the environment, and it's an 18 year old Citroen Xantia sitting outside my house  ;D The real irony about it is, as I enjoy pointing out, my car is actually better for the environment than my beloved electric C5, yet I still pay top rate tax as it's a 'big engine'... go figure  ::)

Some very good points.

However your vegetable oil burning car may not be quite as clean as you think.

I would be very surprised if the crisp and dry oil that you burned is carbon neutral, that is to say the amount of carbon produced when making the oil and then burning it in your engine is equal to that used by the plants when they were growing before being turned into the vegetable oil. There is a large amount of carbon produced in the manufacture of vegetable oil. Not only growing but harvesting and transporting the crop for processing all produce carbon emissions from the vehicles doing the work. Also the production process its self will produce carbon emissions, the factories will use electricity currently mostly produced by burning fossil fuels etc. Not to mention if we all converted to using bio fuels the vast amount of land that would have to be given over to growing fuel instead of food.
Well, after getting that moan off my chest. I think you are correct to say your 18 year old car is far more environmentally friendly than buying a new car and then getting rid of it and it been scrapped and recycled as most manufacturers would love us to do. The real environmental benefits are from keeping using older cars whose carbon footprint is smaller (generally less plastics etc used in the manufacture), is spread over a large amount of time and not to produce so many new ones for them to be recycled after an unnecessary short life. Both the production and recycling of car counts for a good part of its carbon footprint.

That's actually a really good reply, and very thought provoking! It's a really interesting comparison to draw, because I do agree that of course the manufacturing process creates pollution too.

The biggest difference between vegetable oil versus electricity that I can see is that where the world is geared up for the creation of of electricity, little thought has ever had to be given to the production and distribution of vegetable oils. Of course, there are added points too... a car in general will need a new battery once in a while for example, but in terms of environmental impact I would love to see a comparative study between the manufacture of a litre of vegetable oil and the same for a litre of petrol and diesel.

The biggest two things in my mind are that firstly vegetable oils compared to fossil fuels are easily replaceable, a technically unlimited supply... and second produce nothing out of the exhaust. I actually have to tell the MOT garage that I'm running it as at the last test it came up with a flat zero!

What I do find fascinating though is that the government(s) are well aware of this, this to the point that legislation is actually in place regarding it's use. As it stands, you are allowed to use 2500 litres a year tax free. Supermarkets too are well aware of this, vegetable oil always used to be a classic loss leader... but since their increased use it now actually tracks the price of diesel! Average diesel price in my area is around £1.46 a litre... average cooking oil price is around £1.40. They do sometimes have offers on... I can usually find one that will be £1 a litre, like the Crisp 'n Dry, but the point is that there's no good reason for this.

Producing vegetable oil would create thousands of jobs for poor farmers around the world... so where's the "down side"?

I know people who get the old oil from restaurants and takeaways  - Win win, as the restaurant normally has to pay for this service. They then filter out the old chips in their garage. Apparently your exhaust smells like which ever place the oil came from!

I heard the Diesel was designed for peanut oil but petroleum was much easier to find back then. As you say the issue of everyone switching to veg oil would be the same if everyone gave up meat, the world doesn't have the crops to sustain it.

There are a few VERY exciting developments that could sort this out IMO:

1) Hydrogen which seems the most likely at the mo.

2) Micro power plants - A team is working on small plants that would run on 2 litres of water a day and provide more than enough electricity to run a family house and a car. A little way off but realistic.

3) Ethanol producing bacteria - Genetically modified bacteria that photosynthesise the sun into ethanol. This is already under way but is producing very little at the moment. There was a great peice on the recent Tomorrows World

In the mean time veg oil is a great way to keep old burners on the road which is great for the pocket and the environment. Another source of oil when the reserves run dry and we want to play with the old classic cars would be turning plastic back in to oil. This can be done with high temperatures perhaps gained from solar ovens or convex mirrors.

This subject has always been an interesting one!

There have been a lot of cheaper and cleaner fuel alternatives invented over the years, most of them easily adaptable to existing petrol/diesel engines, but actually implementing them on a country-wise scale is just too much hassle - just try finding an garage stocking LPG you need one ;D

Using LPG as an example, it was briefly introduced during in WWII, but only due to petrol rationing and shortages.  It wasn't until petrol prices started to rise in the late '70s that actually became a worthwhile investment - not only for the vehicle owner who had to buy a big expensive gas tank and fitting kit - but also for the petrol stations who had to invest in a gas delivery system.  Even then, it was only large petrol engine commercial vehicles that had them fitted.

Even today with much better availability, installing an entire LPG kit on a Austin Mini 1000 would be pointless - it would take ages to get your initial investment back, plus you'd sacrifice most of your boot space for the additional fuel cylinder.  Which in a the back of a small car would be rather un-nerving if you ever got rear-ended!

So yes, petrol and diesel are expensive, but they are easily available.  If it the laws of science magically changed one night and it became scientifically impossible to refine Diesel, I'm sure an alternative would be back at the pumps fairly soon (no doubt taxed to kingdom come!).

That's why there is a limit on the amount of "personal" diesel you can make from cooking oil.  You bet if the limit was lifted, they'd be some crafty why to get you to pay tax on it.

One more example I can think of is Brazil.  Again, after the 1970's fuel crisis the price of petrol shot up in price so they crated their own alcohol/ethanol mix made from locally grown fermented sugarcane. it's called Alcool!



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