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Fueling your Car

BMW Updates And Hyundai Hydrogen Power.

BMW continue to roll out new or updated models at an astonishing rate in 2020. For the brand’s M Pure range, there will be another two models being added. Dubbed M135i xDrive Pure and M235i xDrive Pure, they’ll come with an extensive range of standard equipment and sharp pricing. The M135i xDrive Pure is priced at $63,990 and the M235i xDrive Pure at $67,990. This is a $5K savings in comparison to related models.

Power for both comes from BMW’s TwinPower Turbo four. 225kW and 450Nm spin an eight speed auto Sport Steptronic transmission that send grip to all four paws via the xDrive system with an LSD on the front axle. Steering column paddle shifts are standard. External style cues comes from the sharing of styling packages, wheels, and tyres.

BMW lists the M135i xDrive Pure with M Sport steering, 19 inch alloys in M spec Cerium Grey that wrap M Sport Brakes and blue calipers. Inside there is a BMW specification Head Up Display and the bespoke Driving Assistant package. There is Lane Departure Warning, Lane Change Warning, Approach Control Warning with city-braking intervention, Rear Cross Traffic Warning, Rear Collision Prevention and Speed Limit Info. There is also their Comfort Access System that features Electric Seat Adjustment, driver’s side seat memory function with the seats in Trigon black and Alcantara, and dual zone climate control. On top of that is the M135i xDrive which adds a panoramic glass roof, adaptive LED front lights and “Dakota leather upholstery, plus a thumping Harman Kardo audio system. The value here is over $6K. The same packages apply to the M235i xDrive Pure and M235i xDrive.

The stable now consists of M135i xDrive Pure and M235i xDrive Pure, the M340i xDrive Pure M550i xDrive Pure, before migrating to X2 M35i Pure, X5 M50i Pure, and X6 M50i Pure.

The two new additions will be available in the coming months.

Hydrogen is being touted by Hyundai as the next thing in vehicle power sources and the Korean company has moved swiftyly into areas outside of passenger vehicles. In a global first, Hyundai have sent to Switzerland 10 units of their hydrogen powered machine called XCIENT. This commences a roll-out which will comprise 50 units to start with. A goal of 1,600 trucks are expected to be released by 2025. Due to the tax structures in Switzerland, Hyundai chose the country with one levy, the LSVA road tax on commercial vehicles which does not apply for zero-emission trucks, as a main consideration. That nearly equalises the hauling costs per kilometre of the fuel cell truck compared to a regular diesel truck. And thanks to the green energy costs from hydropower, it counts towards the eco performance of the country.The power system has a pair of 95kW hydrogen fuel cells. Just on 32 kilos of the fluid form are stored across seven super-strong storage tanks. Hyundai specifically developed the system for the truck with the current and expected infrastructure in Switzerland, and have engineered in a range of 400 kilometres. Refuel time minimises downtime with anywhere from 8 to 20 minutes. Hyundai says that this should work in with obtaining “the optimal balance between the specific requirements” of the customer base and that refuel infrastructure. In Cheol Lee, Executive Vice President and Head of Commercial Vehicle Division at Hyundai Motor, opines: “XCIENT Fuel Cell is a present-day reality, not as a mere future drawing board project. By putting this groundbreaking vehicle on the road now, Hyundai marks a significant milestone in the history of commercial vehicles and the development of hydrogen society.”

A key attraction of the hydrogen technology is how well, like diesel, that hydrogen is admirably suited to long distance driving and the quick turn-around times required in heavy haulage. Engineering can also build engines, such as they have here, to deal with expected terrain such as the road system in a mountainous country. To that end, Hyundai is developing a unit for a tractor with a mooted range of 1,000 kilometres with markets such as the United States and Europe in mind.

The origination of the program goes back to 2019 with a joint venture named Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility, a partnership between H2 Energy in Switzerland and Hyundai. The basis for the trucks being operated will work around a lease agreement with commercial operators and on a pay-per-use agreement. This helps budget requirements as there is no immediate up-front costs.

Depending on the results, with expected high success levels, the program may be expanded to other European countries.

What Did People Use Petroleum For Before The Internal Combustion Engine?

Vintage advertisement for benzine-based stain remover.

Petroleum is currently the backbone of the motoring industry, despite the push for alternate fuel sources such as biodiesel, electricity, ethanol, etc.  Ever since Karl Benz first invented the internal combustion engine and fitted it to the horseless carriage, vehicles have run on petroleum of some type – apart from a brief period where Diesel engines ran on vegetable oil.

On Bertha Benz’s legendary first long-distance drive in her husband’s new invention, she ran out of fuel and had to stop and pick up more from the nearest pharmacy.  It’s easy to just take in that sentence and think what a funny place a pharmacy is to pick up petrol until you stop and think about it: why was a chemist’s shop selling petrol?  What on earth were people using it for before we had cars to put it in?

Petroleum has certainly been known for at least four millennia. The name comes from Ancient Greek: petra elaion, meaning “rock oil”, which distinguished it from other sorts of oil such as olive oil, sunflower seed oil and the like.  The stuff was coming out of the ground all around the world, and quite a few ancient societies found a use for it.

The most useful form of petroleum back in the days BC (as in Before Cars as well as Before Christ) was bitumen, the sticky variety that we now use for making asphalt for road surfacing.  Bitumen (also called pitch or tar) didn’t just stick to things; it was also waterproof. As it was a nice waterproof adhesive, it came in handy for all sorts of things, from sticking barbed heads onto harpoons through to use as mortar – the famously tough walls of the ancient city of Babylon (modern-day Iraq, 2which is still oil-rich) used bitumen as mortar.  The Egyptians sometimes used it in the process of mummification, using it as a waterproofing agent.  In fact, the word “mummy” is thought to derive from the Persian word for bitumen or petroleum, making mummies the very first petrolheads.

For the next thousand years, petroleum in the form of bitumen was mostly used for waterproofing ships, to the extent that sailors became known as “tars” because they tended to get covered with the stuff.  In the 1800s, it was used to make road surface – before there were cars to run on them.

It was probably the Chinese who first had the idea of using petroleum as fuel.  “Burning water” was used in the form of natural gas for lighting and heating in homes, and in about 340 AD, they had a rather sophisticated oil well drilling and piping system in place.

The bright idea of refining bitumen to something less sticky and messy first occurred in the Middle East (why are we not surprised?) at some point during the Middle Ages.  A Persian alchemist and doctor called Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (aka Rhazes) wrote a description of how to distil rock oil using the same equipment the alchemists used for distilling essential oils.  The end result was what we know today as kerosene, and it was a lot more flammable.  Kerosene was used for lamps and in heaters, especially as it was a lot cleaner than coal.  It was also used in military applications.  Naphtha (one of the other early names for petroleum products) was possibly one of the mystery ingredients in Greek fire.

Kerosene and the like really took off during the Age of Coal and the Industrial Revolution, as they were by-products of the coke-refining industry.  About this time, scientists started tinkering around with various ways to refine crude oil into products like paraffin and benzene and benzine.  Benzene and benzine are not named after Karl and Bertha Benz the way that diesel fuel is named after Rudolf Diesel.  These words are actually derived from “benzoin” and benzene was given its official name by yet another German scientist in the early 1800s.  The similarity between the surname Benz and the name of the petrol product is pure coincidence – really!

The petrol product (ligroin) that Bertha Benz picked up at the pharmacy was probably sold as a solvent, like the ad in the picture up the top. This was one of the most common household uses of bottled refined petroleum.  Petrol is still very good as a solvent and can bust grease like few other things, so it was popular as a stain remover and a laundry product.  It might have ponged a bit and you had to be careful with matches, but it was nice and handy, and meant you could get that candle-grease off your suit without putting the whole thing through the wash.  Other uses for benzene that sound downright bizarre to us today included getting the caffeine out of coffee to make decaf and aftershave.  REALLY don’t try this one at home, even if you love the smell of petrol, as we now know that petrol products are carcinogenic and you should keep them well away from your skin, etc.

It was the widespread use of petroleum-based products such as paraffin in the 1800s that made the demand for whale oil drop dramatically.  This happened just in time to stop whales being hunted to extinction.  Using petrol was the green thing to do and helped to Save The Whales.  Now that whales have been saved and are thriving, cutting down on the use of fossil fuels is the main focus of a lot of environmental groups.  Irony just doesn’t seem to cover it.

The Story Of Diesel

It’s something we hear about our think about just about every day, whether we drive a diesel-powered vehicle or a petrol-powered one.  There you are, pulling up at the local bowser and you have to stop and do a quick check to make sure that you get the right one, diesel rather than petrol or vice versa.  You probably don’t stop to think about the word diesel much or the history behind it.

Most of us think that diesel engines are called diesel engines because they run on diesel. After all, a petrol engine runs on petrol (which, for you word boffins out there, is short for petroleum, which is derived from the Latin petra oleum, translated “rock oil”).  However, this isn’t the case.  We call the fuel diesel because it was what went in a diesel engine, i.e. the sort of internal combustion engine invented by Herr Rudolf Diesel back in 1893.  If you want to be picky, what we use is “diesel fuel” which we put into a diesel.

The story of the diesel engine starts back in the days of steam.  Steam power, though a major breakthrough that transformed the world and took us into the era of machines rather than relying on muscle power, was pretty inefficient.  You needed a lot of solid fuel to burn and you needed water that could be boiled to produce the steam, and you needed to build up a good head of steam to get the pressure needed to drive the locomotives, paddle steamers and machines.  Steam was really inefficient – up to 90% of the potential energy was wasted – and it was pretty bulky (think about steam trains, which need a caboose or a built-in tender to carry the fuel and water).  The hunt was on for something that could provide the same type of oomph and grunt but with less waste (and possibly less space).

In the 1890s, a young engineer named Rudolf Diesel came into the scene and started work on developing a more efficient engine. One of his earlier experiments involving a machine that used ammonia vapour caused a major explosion that nearly killed him and put him in hospital for several months. Nevertheless, in spite of the risks, Diesel carried on, and began investigating how best to use the Carnot Cycle. His interest was also sparked by the development of the internal combustion engine and the use of petroleum by fellow-German Karl Benz.

The Carnot Cycle is based on the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, which more or less state that heat is work and work is heat, and that heat won’t pass of its own accord from a cold object to a hotter object. This video gives a very catchy explanation of these laws:

The Carnot Cycle is a theoretical concept that involves heat energy coming from a furnace in one chamber to the working chamber, where the heat turns into work because heat causes gases and liquids to expand (it also causes solids to expand but not so dramatically). The remaining heat energy is soaked up by a cooling chamber.  The principle is also used in refrigerators to get the cooling effect.

Diesel’s engine was based on the work of a few other inventors before him, as is the case with a lot of handy inventions.  Diesel’s engine was the one that became most widespread and proved most popular, which is why we aren’t putting Niepce, Brayton, Stuart or Barton in our cars and trucks.  In fact, we came very close to putting Stuart in our engines, as Herbert Ackroyd Stuart patented a compression ignition engine using similar principles a couple of years before Rudolph Diesel did.

The general principle of a Diesel engine is that it uses compressed hot air (air gets hotter when it’s compressed, which is why a bicycle pump feels hot when you’ve been using it for a while) to get the fuel in the internal combustion engine going.  This is in contrast to a petrol engine (which we really ought to call an Otto engine, as it operates on the Otto Cycle rather than the Diesel Cycle), which used sparks of electricity to get the fuel and air mix going. Petrol engines compress the air-fuel mix a little bit – down to about 10% of its original size, but a diesel engine, the air is compressed a lot more tightly. More details of how it works would probably be better described in a post of its own, so we’ll save the complicated explanation for later.

Diesel fuel doesn’t need to be as refined as what goes into petrol engines, which is what makes diesel engines a bit more efficient than their equivalents that run on more refined petrol (makes you wonder why “petrolheads” are considered to be coarse and crude).  The fuel is more energy-dense and it burns more completely – and it needs less lubrication, which means less friction, which is also more efficient.

Herr Diesel’s original idea was to have his engine run on something that wasn’t this fancy petroleum stuff, which was mostly used medicinally to treat headlice at that stage.  The first prototype used petrol as we know it.  Later models used the cheap fraction that now bears his name.  Even later refinements ran on vegetable oil, with the grand idea that people could grow a source of fuel rather than mine or drill for it.  One of the great mysteries of the story of diesel is why they switched to fossil fuels when the peanut oil that Diesel raved about worked so well.  Now we’re all excited about biofuels and especially biodiesel once again…  Was there some conspiracy at work?

However, how diesel engines came to run on fossil fuels rather than plant oil is not the only mystery about Rudolf Diesel.  His death was also unexpected and mysterious.  In late 1913, this German inventor was on his way by ship to the UK for a conference.  One night, he headed off to his cabin and asked the stewards to wake him early in the morning.  However, he vanished during the night, leaving his coat neatly folded beneath a railing.  Ten days later, his body, recognisable only from the items in his pockets, was pulled from the sea.

How his body came to be found floating in the English Channel is a mystery.  Perhaps the problems with his eyesight left over from his accident with the ammonia vapour explosion and a rough sea led to an accident. Perhaps he committed suicide, as a lot of the fortune his invention had earned him had gone into shares that devalued.  Or perhaps foul play was at work. After all, in 1913, tensions were building between Diesel’s native Germany and the UK, where Diesel had planned to meet with engineers and designers for the Royal Navy.  This was the era of the Anglo-German Naval Race, where the German and British navies were in an all-out arms race to get control of the economically important North Sea.  When Diesel was making his ill-fated crossing, the Germans had the use of the more efficient diesel technology but the British had the formidable Dreadnought class of steam-powered battleships.  The arms race was officially over, as Germany had agreed to tone things down in order to placate the British – who had alliances with the two other political powers that were at loggerheads with Germany.  It’s perfectly possible that in spite of this and because of the political tension of the time, the idea of the firepower of the Dreadnought combined with the efficiency of the diesel engine was just too much for Kaiser Bill’s government…

Tesla Gets A Semi And Updated Roadster.

It’s been hinted at, guessed about, and now it’s for real. Tesla has given us a semi. 2019 is the year that is currently scheduled for first delivery and reservations are currently being taken in the US for just five thousand American dollars.Tesla has unveiled the new truck at a lavish event and simply stated, the design and specifications are stunning.

  • Zero to 60 mph in five seconds, unladen,
  • Zero to 60 mph in twenty seconds with an 80000 pound (over 36200 kilos) load,
  • Will climb a five degree slope at a steady 65 mph,
  • No shifting and clutching mechanism, regenerative braking recovers 98% of energy and no moving engine parts reduces maintenance, costs, and wear,
  • New megachargers add 400 miles range in thirty minutes,
  • Enhanced Autopilot, the Tesla Semi features Automatic Emergency Braking, Automatic Lane Keeping, Lane Departure Warning, and event recording,
  • Has an autonomous convoy mode, where a lead truck can control following trucks. Tesla has also changed the way we view a semi, with the cabin designed to be driver-centric, and with stairs to allow better entry and exit from the cabin. The cabin itself will allow standing room and for the driver two touchscreens for ease of use and providing extra information at a glance.

Tesla has also revealed a throwback to their origins, with a revamped Roadster. It’s also some numbers that, if proven, are truly startling. Consider a 0-100 kph time of 1.9 seconds, a standing 400 metre time of 8.8 seconds, 0 – 160 kph of just 4.2 seconds, over 250 miles per hour top speed and a range of over 600 miles. It’ll be all wheel drive, a four seater, have a removable glass roof, and will start at a current mooted price of US$200000.

More information can be found via The Tesla website

Information provided courtesy of Tesla.

Will Diesel Vehicles Still be a Part of our Future?

In recent times, diesel fuel technology has been occupying the news in what are (mostly) unwanted circumstances. Headlined by the Volkswagen ‘Dieselgate’ saga, which just about spread to all corners of the world, several other auto makers have also come under scrutiny over concerns they may have installed diesel emissions cheating devices.

In the wake of the scandal, Volkswagen’s CEO even went as far as to say that the manufacturer would no longer be offering diesel vehicles in the US market. The company cited that money being spent to adhere to increasingly stricter regulations could instead be better utilised by serving future technology, such as electric vehicles.

While the remarks were not necessarily aimed at the local car market, it’s not unreasonable that changes occurring in the US market would flow down under. After all, major cities in Europe, and even places like Mexico and India are already planning to take action in some form to discourage the use of diesel powered cars. One example even sees the UK mulling the idea of a trade in system for diesel cars in pollution ‘hotspots’. Meanwhile, the European Union’s industry commissioner has also suggested the phasing out of diesel vehicles could be faster than anticipated.

Given Australia is generally a follower when it comes to the automotive market, one has to wonder – will a change be forced upon local motorists to move away from diesel vehicles?

Across the last decade, it’s estimated that the number of diesel vehicles on the road has more than doubled – today contributing one third of new car sales. As well as environmental issues, the sales growth comes despite health professionals talking about the risks associated with this type of fuel technology. Most concerning, doctors are focusing on the levels of nitrogen oxide being emitted from these vehicles, widely regarded as contributing factors to respiratory illnesses and even cancer.

What’s also evident is the relative ‘strength’ in diesel car sales is being fuelled by the Australian obsession with diesel powered SUVs and utes. It’s in these categories where diesel sales have surged, despite a modest decrease in the proportion of passenger cars sold which are powered by diesel. Compared with the dynamics of other markets, particularly those in compact European cities, or heavily polluted mega cities in Asia, Australia sees a far greater volume of SUVs on our roads.

With a clearly established taste for larger vehicles, it seems Australian motorists will for now continue to place a greater emphasis on the prospect of a greater driving range afforded by diesel. The fuel technology, for all its health hazards, is perhaps being overlooked by authorities given the sprawling nature of our cities and lower population levels. It’s also unlikely that until such time that alternative fuel technologies like hydrogen and electricity become mainstream, and are even tailored towards our local taste for SUVs and utes, then we may have accepted our differences from the rest of the world.

Let’s also not forget, the Australian government earns a sizeable chunk of money from its excise tax on diesel. Will they be taking a slice of margins once alternative fuels becomes readily available? Maybe they’ll find a way to recoup a portion – but it’s hard to imagine they have an incentive to fast-track these changes.

Uh-Oh, I’ve Used the Wrong Fuel. Now What?

As humans, we’re prone to an error or two from time to time. In fact, we could hardly consider ourselves human if we were perfect and not making the odd mistake. And while it’s not common to mix up different fuel types when putting them into your vehicle, it can and does happen. After all, for those pump nozzles to be colour-coded, and even slightly different fits, someone must have realised there was a problem. However, even if you end up making this surprisingly not so uncommon mistake, you can rectify the issue and minimise the prospect of any long-term damage to your vehicle.

When petrol is inserted into diesel vehicles, the more common mix-up, the engine and fuel injector system are most prone to issues. Petrol acts as a solvent to reduce the lubrication within a diesel fuel pump, in turn creating weakness within the diesel fuel pump. Where metals make contact with each other, a lack of lubrication can mean that tiny fragments are created. The impact of these fragments can be notable as they make their way through the rest of the fuel system. Engines potentially may also be exposed to damage as a result of the extreme and ill-regulated compression of petrol fuel.

Although diesel used in petrol engines still has the chance to create catastrophic damage, petrol engines tend to suffer immediate performance issues that are symptomatic of a fuel mix-up. This may include a poorly running vehicle, or one that won’t start at all.

If you’ve realised you’ve made a mistake, the most fundamental rule is to refrain from starting the ignition. As soon as you switch that key, fuel is circulated right through the system, extensively expanding the areas at risk.

Your first point of call should be to ask a licensed towing agency to transport the vehicle to a workshop premises, or alternatively, you will need to put the car into neutral and push it away. The problem with the latter approach however, is that there are few places immediately near a service station where it is appropriate to syphon fuel. Doing this on the side of a road, particularly major roads where service stations are located, is not the most logical location. Furthermore, you also run the risk of polluting the environment via waterways and the ground.

If on the other hand, you don’t immediately realise your error and only start to notice performance issues a short time after fuelling up, stop immediately and arrange for your vehicle to be towed away. The damage at this point, and certainly beyond, is more likely to be meaningful if left longer without being addressed. Diesel systems are likely to require a rework of the whole fuel system or worse, while petrol engines are more likely to need the fuel drained, lines flushed and filter changed.

Using the wrong petrol grade however, is of less concern. Although a lower grade still has the potential to have wider implications for a high-grade system, this is more reserved for specific vehicles. Even some high performance vehicles will slug away on a lower grade without any lasting damage, only a temporary reduction in performance levels. And if you fill up with a high grade fuel in your 91ULP vehicle, learn from your mistake and appreciate that the only damage was a few dollars difference between the cost in fuel grades – certainly not a few thousand dollars in repairs!

Pee Power: It’s No Joke (No, Honestly; We Really Mean It This Time)

fuelcellQuite a few years ago, when this blog site was just starting out, we published an April Fool’s day article that claimed that scientists had worked out how to run a car engine on pee.  We intended this as a joke but it looks as though the last laugh’s on us.  There really is a way to run a vehicle on urine.

This is not to say that the white-coated ones have come up with a system by which you refuel your vehicle by taking a very, very large drink of water then… well, use your imagination! Instead, it’s a system where hydrogen is extracted from urine and is then used in hydrogen fuel cells to power a vehicle.

In fact, according to Gerardine Botte of Ohio University, who developed the process of getting hydrogen out of urine in 2009, it’s easier to get the hydrogen out of wee than out of water. In urea (one of the compounds of urine), there’s four hydrogen atoms per molecule rather than two, and they’re not holding chemical hands as tightly, so they’re easy to split off with a cheap little nickel-based electrode that uses 0.37 V to grab the hydrogen rather than the 1.23 V needed to split water up into H2 and O.

This is very good news for the sustainable fuel world. Hydrogen fuel cells are the next big thing. In fact, Toyota , the people who really popularised the hybrid electric vehicle with the ground-breaking Prius are set to launch the world’s first mass-produced fuel cell vehicle, known as the Mirai (which has already been released in Japan and California).

So how does hydrogen fuel cell technology work?

A fuel cell is kind of like a battery in that it produces an electrical current that can then be used to power a motor. However, unlike a battery, it needs to be supplied non-stop with fuel, which is usually hydrogen and water. There are several different types of fuel cell out there but in general, what happens is this:

  • Hydrogen molecules flow in at one side and the anode catalyst nicks their electrons (a hydrogen atom contains one proton and one electron). This leaves the hydrogen molecules with a positive electrical charge, while the electrons start the circuit buzzing.
  • The positively charged hydrogen molecules are pulled through the electrolyte towards the cathode.
  • At the cathode, the positively charged molecules meet up with the electrons again. They also meet up with oxygen molecules that have been coming in the other way.
  • The oxygen, hydrogen and free electrons react and produce H2O, which leaves as exhaust.

If you want this in more visual form (and don’t mind a little promo material), watch Toyota’s explanation here:

Each individual fuel cell only produces a wee bit of electrical current, so to be really efficient, you need a whole bank of them.

The main snag with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles so far is the usual problem with any new technology: the infrastructure problem. Hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles are already facing this problem, namely the issue of “topping up”. One of the problems that will have to be overcome is that it’s not a wise idea to have large amounts of pure hydrogen hanging around for any length of time as it’s really, really explosive (heard of the Hindenberg disaster, anyone?). However, seeing as we can cope with other highly flammable materials like LPG, acetylene and even petrol, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

The other issue is getting the hydrogen. Yes, it’s an abundant molecule but it tends to be tied up to other molecules so it has to be stripped off. Methane is a commonly used potential source of hydrogen, but you have to get the methane from somewhere, usually as a waste product of industries such as our sugar cane industry. Extracting the hydrogen for use as fuel is fiddly compared to just producing and pumping ethanol from the same source, so it’s usually the ethanol that wins out.

This is kind of why the discovery that you can get the hydrogen out of urea pretty easily is rather exciting, especially as the leftover molecules after you’ve removed the hydrogen are nitrogen molecules, which have potential to be used as fertiliser (in fact, urea is currently used as fertiliser, as any old-fashioned home gardener will tell you). Let’s face it: if there’s one thing we’re not going to run out of in a huge hurry is pee. If we’ve got an increasing human population and we all have to keep drinking, then we’re all going to widdle. In fact, as an extra bonus, if we’re all saving our pee to use in a fuel cell vehicle, this will reduce pressure on the waste water system which means that there will be more water for use in agriculture and for drinking, which will help reduce world hunger, etc. etc. Human pee isn’t the only source, either, as the process works with just about any sort of urine, including cow, sheep and horse pee.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been tried in Australia when Perth was trialling a set of buses running on hydrogen. Here, we’re lagging behind the US, Germany, Japan and the UK somewhat. Perth had the only hydrogen fuelling station for the now-discontinued bus trial.

It’s all rather exciting, really, as there’s plenty of potential. Here’s to Pee Power!

Safe and happy driving,


The Biofuel Potential of Elephant Grass

What’s a big fluffy-looking grass that could be one of the answers to dwindling fossil fuel supplies?  The answer is Miscanthus – also known as elephant grass.


Elephant grass (Miscanthus × giganteus) has been getting a bit of interest from the biofuel boffins since as early as the 1980s. And it’s got a fair bit of promise. It’s not an oil-producing plant but it does make a good feedstock for ethanol.

Elephant grass is a perennial (plant it once and then it just keeps on going) that grows from rhizomes (that’s big fat roots).  It puts out fresh shoots every spring, grows up to 3 metres high in summer. In the autumn, it starts to go to sleep, sending a lot of the nutrients (including nitrogen and carbon) underground to the soil and the roots (and also smothers a few weeds with the shed leaves).  This leaves tall stems that are kind of like bamboo standing.  These stems are harvested in late winter or early spring before the new leaves start poking up again, and it’s the stems that get used as an ethanol feedstock.  Then the cycle begins again.

Now, there are a number of issues that have to be tackled when it comes to finding a good plant source of biofuel. Firstly, there’s the land issue. There’s only a certain amount of arable land in the world, and with the global population growing the way that it is, we’re going to need quite a lot of it to feed us all (we probably also need to do something about the amount of food that gets wasted every year, but that’s another story).  Then come the issues with water: again, there’s only so much fresh water out there at any one time for people and animals and plants to use, even if the water cycle means that it all keeps circulating. And you’ve got pesticides: if a crop gets a lot of pests eating it, then farmers need to dump on the pesticides, which (a) takes up a lot of resources and (b) puts a whole lot of junk into the soil and water.

It’s an added bonus if a plant used as a biofuel feedstock is pretty easy-care. That way, it doesn’t mean that the farmers use heaps of diesel in the process of ploughing, sowing, harrowing, weeding, fertilising and harvesting.  Plants that have other benefits also get big tick marks.

Stems of elephant grass ready for harvest at the end of winter.

Stems of elephant grass ready for harvest at the end of winter.

So how does elephant grass stand up?

Elephant grass has a high yield per hectare. This means that for every acre of elephant grass planted, you get a maximum of 25 tons of biomass (depending on the exact variety) that converts to over 3000 gallons of ethanol – better figures than you get for corn grown for biofuel and heaps better than timber.  It’s not a food crop for humans or for animals.  This means that on one hand, it will take up land that could be used for growing food. On the other hand, it means that it won’t drive up the price of food, like corn grown for biofuel can.  It needs a moderate amount of water, but it’s pretty undemanding regarding other inputs.  Because it’s a perennial plant, it doesn’t need to be re-sown every year. It also smothers weeds and puts some organic material back into the soil, meaning that you don’t need pesticides and it cuts down on the amount of fertiliser needed for a good crop – although a wee bit of fertiliser will be needed for best results.  All a farmer has to do, more or less, is stick it in, water it and harvest it at the right time.

And is there anything else that elephant grass is good for? It can be used as a substitute for coal in coal-fired power plants (one US plant breeder claims that 1 acre of elephant grass can power two typical US households for a year).  The stems also get used for kitty litter, bedding for racehorses, paper and composites (eco-friendly plastic substitutes). Unfortunately, these aren’t by-products of the biofuel industry. However, the tall green stands does provide cover for wildlife during summer.  It can also be used as an ornamental plant – although it’s a bit on the large side!

Elephant grass grows reasonably well in the more temperate parts of Australia. In fact, a close relative of M. × giganteus (Miscanthus sinensis – also known as zebra grass) is considered to be an invasive weed in Victoria and New South Wales.  Let’s hope the powers that be don’t just spray it off but make the most of it!  Elephant grass, however, is a hybrid, so it’s not likely to spread as invasively, as the seeds aren’t fertile.

Safe and happy driving,


A Wee Dram For Your Car

nunswithcarOk, so it’s St Patrick’s Day, so I’ll put this post in green text and will kick off with a wee story…

Two nuns were driving along a remote rural road in County Mayo in northeastern Ireland when they ran out of fuel.  They walked to a nearby farmhouse and explained their plight to the farmer.  “To be sure, sisters, I can give you a bit of petrol so it’s off on your good works you can be driving.  But I’ve only the one jerry can, so the only thing I can give you to carry it back to your car in is this old whiskey bottle.” “Bless you, Patrick, and thank you,” said the nuns.  They walked back to their car clutching their whisky bottle full of petrol.  As they were pouring the petrol from the whisky bottle into the fuel tank, Sean O’Reilly drove by.  Spotting the whiskey bottle, Sean shook his head and stared.  “Begorrah, that’s what I call faith!” he said.

We chuckle about that one (or the alternative version where the farmer lends them a chamber pot) but the story can be killed stone dead if one remembers that alcohol is indeed one of the more common alternative fuels is alcohol – ethanol, methanol, butanol and propanol are good fuels.  You’d never bother setting that story about the nuns in Brazil – over there, they have cars (often the locally produced VWs) that are designed for flex fuel – they run on petrol, alcohol or a mixture of the above.  And we’re not too bad for the old ethanol in Australia ourselves.

And now the UK and Ireland are getting in on the act.  A whisky distillery in Edinburgh, Scotland, has just announced that they have successfully produced a butanol blend that can be used on its own or blended with diesel or (better still from a sustainability perspective) biodiesel. They use waste products from the process of distilling whisky – an industry that’s quite large in Scotland, as you might imagine.

The waste products in question go by names that are anything but long bits of Latin and Greek: draff and pot ale.  Draff is the malted barley left over after the initial brewing process (lovers of craft beer and home brewers of beer will know what I’m talking about here).  Pot ale, on the other hand, is the leftover liquid after the whisky has been distilled out of the original brew of fermented grain (something that resembles beer or ale but without the hops).  These two products are mixed to create a blend given the traditional name “broth” (isn’t it nice to see a scientific product that doesn’t feel compelled to use long and complicated names but just uses something with Anglo-Saxon or Celtic origins?).  This broth goes through its own distilling process to produce the biobutanol.

The plant, which has hefty backing from the Scottish government and the UK government (let’s just not go into the politics of Scotland here, OK?), hopes to be up and running fully in 2016.  Because butanol delivers plenty of oomph, there’s a chance that it won’t be appearing at British bowsers at this stage: as it’s suitable as jet fuel, the aviation market might snap plenty of it up.  However, the potential is there to produce lots of biobutanol, as the UK doesn’t just have whisky distilleries to draw on as a source of draff and pot ale: there’s the beer brewing industry and other sorts of distillery to draw on as well.

Lastly, for the clever readers who’ve spotted the two different spellings of whisky/whiskey:  “whiskey” is for the Irish version; “whisky” is the Scottish variety). 

Safe and happy driving as well as happy St Patrick’s Day,


The Biofuel Dilemma

DieselFuel_195121818The push for more sustainable sources of energy for our cars is intensifying.  Biodiesel and ethanol are getting more and more common.  Slurping through large amounts of fossil fuel is considered irresponsible, as is belching out a lot of greenhouse gases.  In this sort of climate (both the metaphorical climate of opinion and the actual one, which is supposed to be changing), biofuels are looking like a very sexy option.

However, there is a bit of a problem when it comes to biofuels.  You see, while it seems like a great idea to grow a crop that can be turned into fuel, there are a few snags.  All commercially grown crops take up land, and they require nutrients and water.  This means that they’re competing with other crops – like the ones that you and I eat.  And this is where the problem lies: if we’re going to do away with world hunger, the people who are currently starving are going to have to eat something.  And that something will have to grow somewhere.

They tell us that it’s going to become more difficult to find enough land and other resources to feed the world.  This means that even if biofuels don’t increase, there’s going to be issues with growing enough food to feed us all.  On the one hand, we want to get from A to B more sustainably.  On the other hand, we don’t want people to die from malnutrition.  So what’s the answer?  Biofuel or not biofuel?  Should corn go to feeding people or to making oil to power vehicles?  (Let’s not even start on the feeding people versus feeding cattle debate.)  Which is the best option for the thinking person who cares for the planet and other human beings?

The answer is to keep on thinking and to look at the wider issue.  First of all, the food problem.  It might not be as difficult to produce enough food to feed everybody on the planet as you think.  For a start off, a large chunk of us (especially in the Western world) could probably eat less and be better off for it.  Secondly, an awful lot of the food grown in the world today ends up going to waste.  Some is damaged by pests and rotten weather while it’s in the field.  Some doesn’t make it onto the market courtesy of bureaucracy, food regulations and other rhubarb like that – things like the European Union’s standards that state the colour, shape and size of vegetables that are permitted on the market, even though wonky carrots and cucumbers with more than a certain amount of curvature.  A lot of perfectly edible gets dumped along the food pathway – things that are still good but are past their sell-by date, for example.  Thirdly, we can all have a go at growing our own fruit and veg. We can feed a hungry world, people, if we really try!

One has to wonder why all this dumped and wasted food doesn’t end up being turned into biofuels.  It certainly is possible.  One wonders why this hasn’t been tried yet.  Which brings me neatly to the next part of tackling the food vs biofuel dilemma.  Often, biofuels such as ethanol can be made from waste products of the food industry.  Take sugarcane – which is where most of Australia’s ethanol comes from.  The juice gets extracted and taken to the refinery to be turned into what goes into our morning coffee, plus other goodies such as golden syrup and molasses (used as a dietary supplement for dairy cows).  The leftover bits of cane are broken down to make ethanol.  The only snag here is that the leftovers are often quite woody, which means that it’s harder to break down and turn into ethanol.  In the world of biofuels, finding bacteria that are capable of breaking down tough woody stuff is a very hot topic. We might snigger at research papers that rave about the potential of some bacteria strain found in panda poop (actual example) but these bacteria might be the best way of turning, say, sawdust into what you put in your Toyota Corolla.

The third option for solving the dilemma is to find sources of biofuel that don’t compete with food crops for resources.  Things that grow on bad soil or on bad water are particularly popular.  This is where things like jatropha comes in.  Jatropha grows like a weed on bad soil… and it produces oil-bearing seeds that make great biodiesel.  To give you an idea of how well it can grow on marginal land, a close relative of the species that produces the best oil has been banned in Western Australia as an invasive weed.  The other biggie is algae.  Algae can be grown on sewage (something we’re not exactly going to run out of) and some strains produce a good dollop of oil that can be turned into biodiesel.  The hunt is on to find the best types of algae that produce the most bang for the buck.  Again, it doesn’t pay to snigger about research papers that rave about things that grow on sewage.

Algae even looks green.

So what is the average Aussie driver to do in the attempt to “think globally and act locally” when it comes to the biofuel dilemma?

  • As always, conserve fuel when driving (better for your wallet, too).
  • Avoid wasting food, as this means that there’ll be less chance of fuel crops having to compete with food crops (also better for your wallet).
  • Grow your own food.  You might not be able to grow your own biodiesel crop but you can grow your own tomatoes and lettuces.  Every little bit helps.  If we all grew our own, a few more farmers could concentrate on growing biofuel instead.
  • Use biofuels in your vehicle as often as possible – if we keep up the demand, the producers will know to keep up the supply.