Do these containers hold the key to cheap motoring?

Chris Kennett with his Audi A4 car that runs on cooking oil
Chris Kennett with his Audi A4 car that runs on cooking oil
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Nick Leach put his faith in biodiesel the moment he saw a driver fill up his new Range Rover Sport with the stuff.

If a man willing to spend £50,000-plus on his motor was happy to put modified cooking oil in its fuel tank, Nick was confident it would be good enough for his vehicles.

As head of catering at the University of Portsmouth, he uses four vans to deliver supplies all across the city. But using regular diesel vans to make short trips wasn’t proving fuel efficient.

So when he heard about biodiesel – made by adding methanol to vegetable oil – he thought it might be a more effective and environmentally-friendly way of fuelling his vehicles.

Now his vans run on it. And the beauty of his scheme is that all the oil comes from the university’s own halls of residence and cafeterias. Once it’s been used for cooking it’s simply recycled, providing Nick with a cheaper way to keep his fleet on the road.

With crude oil in short supply and the price of a barrel rising all the time, it’s no surprise that people have been looking for alternatives.

According to the website PetrolPrices.com, which checks hundreds of forecourt prices across the country, the average price per litre of unleaded is now 128.33p and a litre of diesel costs 132.87p.

No-one knows when the Earth’s oil reserves will run out. But what we can be certain of is that one day – perhaps not too far in the future – there will be no more.

The fact that replacements such as biodiesel come from sustainable sources, produce less poisonous gases and can work out cheaper, is just part of the deal.

‘Biodiesel is the way forward,’ says Nick. ‘If your car runs on biodiesel it will reduce carbon emissions by about 80 per cent.’

The university gets its biodiesel from disabled charity Yateley Industries and has been using it for the last two years. None of the vans had to be converted and work exactly the same as if they were running on diesel.

Yateley’s has a pump available for other biodiesel users and converts the oil on-site.

‘It takes about 48 hours and is fairly easy to do – a large part of that time is waiting for the residue to sink to the bottom,’ says Nick.

‘It’s then filtered and methanol is added, it’s warmed up carefully and allowed to settle.’

Nick’s not the only one to make the switch. Hampshire County Council now uses biodiesel in its vehicles and Nick’s persuaded the University of Winchester to change. Southampton and Reading universities are looking into it too.

Yateley’s makes a profit and Nick no longer has to pay someone to take away his waste oil.

But fuel tax added to alternative fuels, including biodiesel, means it’s not as cheap as it could be.

‘It costs about 25p for the additives and the methanol which isn’t too bad but then the really disgusting part starts,’ explains Nick.

‘The government doesn’t recognise biodiesel and slaps on 37p a litre in fuel tax. That’s about the same as normal diesel. Biodiesel is a fantastic thing. But there isn’t any joined-up writing, the government isn’t really responding to it.’

He adds: ‘Pump price diesel is about 120 – 125p. We buy the biodiesel for 100p a litre so it’s about a 20p saving.

‘It’s extremely good for the environment and we probably save about £50 a week. The good thing about it is that the charity is taking away our used oil, they are recycling it and we are buying it back from them. They are making a profit from it.’

Nick’s been encouraging restaurants and chip shops in Portsmouth to consider donating their used oil and finds that the cost of biodiesel doesn’t fluctuate as much as regular diesel.

‘It’s not something you have to keep factoring in,’ he adds. ‘Last year we saw costs kept increasing and that was all about the big suppliers having to adjust their fuel costs.’

Chris Kennett also understands the cost implication of making the change. He converts cars to run on used vegetable oil and says more people are becoming interested in finding new ways to power their cars as the cost of petrol and diesel continues to rise.

On a busy week he’d expect to put at least £50 worth of diesel into the tank of his Audi. But after converting his car to run on vegetable oil, he spends as little as £5 in order to get around. And if you happen to find yourself standing behind his exhaust, you won’t be choking on the acrid fumes normally chucked out by diesel cars.

Chris’s Audi has been fitted with a two tank conversion system. One tank has diesel in it and the other contains vegetable oil. The car is started using the diesel but when the engine is hot enough, he switches to the veg oil.

The environmentalist says the reason he does it is that it’s a greener way to live, reducing CO2 emissions.

‘I first heard about it back in the 1990s when I had watched a programme about Papua New Guinea and they were running their vehicles on coconut oil,’ he says. ‘I thought it was great.

‘I gradually started seeing more and more information about it and began to look into it more. Then I completed my first conversion in 2005 and moved on from there and now I sell kits.

‘I can only see it developing more and more. Petrol isn’t going to come back down in price.’

Chris gets his used vegetable oil from local restaurants. Some give it to him and others might charge him a token amount, like a drink at Christmas. As long as he doesn’t use more than 2,500 litres a year he doesn’t have to pay fuel duty, or register as a producer with Customs and Excise.

His kits start from £250 and can be self-fitted: ‘It’s quite a simple process really,’ he adds.

‘All you’re really doing is heating the oil before it goes in the engine. So I use heat exchangers to make it hotter so that it becomes thinner so it combusts. Mine’s a two tank system. You start up on diesel then you switch over when the engine is warmer. You can use a single tank conversion but I don’t do this because I think it’s probably more reliable to use two tanks.’

Petrol cars can’t run on vegetable oil but bioethanol, an alcohol distilled commercially from grain or sugar cane, does work.

Chris says around 60 per cent of cars in Brazil are run on bioethanol but there are hardly any UK garages that sell it, despite the fact that Saab makes cars to run on it.

And then there’s biomethane – gas produced by decomposing food waste – which is a green fuel favoured by other countries, including Sweden and Norway.

Chris, from Denmead, thinks that the UK could do much better.

‘We’re dragging our heels in this country,’ he says.

‘We need to move forward. It’s mainly the Scandinavian countries that are doing quite well.

‘It would be great if more people could think that there’s fuel that we could use and the reality is we could be using them if the government allowed us to use them.

‘There are options that are not being brought in here. They are in other countries but they haven’t got oil companies breathing down their necks. We should look at some of these countries that are pushing it and join in.’

n To find out more about Chris’s conversion kits, log

on to veggiepower.co.uk