Electric cars a good option, but what happened to biofuels?

Biofuels: We use a small quantity already, but we could use a lot more.
Biofuels: We use a small quantity already, but we could use a lot more.

Electric car sales are definitely increasing in Australia but still remain very slow, with just 0.6 per cent of 2019's new vehicle registrations fully electric and 3.5 percent of the total market categorised as at least partially electric (hybrids mostly).

In the meantime, we tend to forget the role that biofuels can play for vehicles we currently have. Australia does already require retail outlets to distribute minimum quantities of biofuel as a percentage of total vehicle fuel sold, but that number is extremely low.

When done right, biofuels can reduce regulated emissions for combustion engines.

However, it does matter what the feedstock is and how it was made as to the net result for emissions. Assuming no coal, no harmful farming practices in their production, and no additional land clearing, the total net release of CO2 and regulated carcinogenic particulates does go down.

Even so, biofuels are still not perfect. Tests show that they can release higher quantities of other compounds such as ground-level ozone (atmospheric smog), so congested cities should still have longer-term goals for much greater use of electrified options as well as far less vehicle use overall.

Ethanol is the same organic hydrocarbon that we drink (unless it's Dry July) and using E10 (a blend of petrol with 10 per cent ethanol mixed in) requires no modifications in most vehicles made to use regular unleaded.

Locally, Holden's flex-fuel Commodores (which can run any blend of petrol and ethanol), were released to the Australian market in August 2010, then withdrawn for 2015. A number of other existing vehicles are also already flex-fuel capable.

Did you know that ethanol is actually a high-performance fuel? Plenty of race cars use it, and the world's most powerful production car, the Koenigsegg Jesko, makes 1603hp on E85 (a blend with 85 per cent ethanol), which is 322hp more than it gets on petrol.

It is also possible to exclusively use E85 in many current petrol engines, and many good high-performance workshops can do the work for you. The main things to change are an increase in the quantity of fuel delivered through the injectors (to attain the correct air:fuel ratio), minor modifications to the cold-start tables, and ensuring the fuel hoses are flex-fuel compatible. Other changes are optional and can be made for performance when rebuilding the engine, such as a higher static compression ratio.

Biodiesel is often derived from plant sources (as a vegetable oil), and most manufacturers acknowledge that using a bio-diesel blend of up to 20 percent (B20) should not cause issues in any diesel vehicle.

Any older engines, including machinery, that didn't come with a diesel particulate filter (DPF) can run even higher percentages of biodiesel, they just need to choose one with a suitable coagulation temperature if they're in a cold climate.

A few fun facts:

  • Cane sugar is the most efficient of the common ethanol feedstocks in terms of yield (land required) and can release fewer greenhouse gasses compared to petrol, however it uses a lot of water. Corn is the most common in the US but studies show it can take over 150 years to reduce the net release of greenhouse gasses due to additional land clearing.
  • Currently, more than half of Australia's ethanol is made in Nowra using wheat deemed unsuitable for food production.
  • Brazil's first ethanol production plant started operating in 1927. Using sugar cane and cane waste, production increased substantially after the 1973 fuel crisis. Now they are the world's second largest producer, largest exporter and ethanol's market share for use in their light vehicles surpassed 50 per cent back in 2008.
  • For biodiesel there are many good options. Safflower oil for example is a hardy and high-quality product that farmers can choose to grow. Biodiesel can also come from waste sources (like cooking oil after good filtration). There are also some very bad options to be avoided like the clearing of palm oil forests.

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.