Racing ahead with biodiesel

By Dr Garth Cambray

Picture © Degussa

Motorsport represents an arena in which new technologies can be tested in vehicles so that they can win races and attract customers. In this regard, the entry of diesel as a racing fuel in both Europe and America shows a stark divide in the level of common sense applied to marketing this versatile fuel.

In 2006 the well engineered Audi R10 TDI engine, with 12 cylinders delivering smooth, fuel efficient power won the le Mans 24 hour race. The engine purred quietly and powerfully, emitted very little smoke and generally was an excellent advert for a fuel which Europe increasingly takes seriously.

Degussa, a company which provides much of the worlds biodiesel fuel and biodiesel fuel making technology has entered the racing arena. Degussa sponsors a BMW 135 DBD with a 3.5 litre bi turbo engine. This engine, benefiting from the high quality biodiesel fuel that it uses performs well and does not emit black smoke. Biodiesel in general emits 50% less soot and smoke than conventional diesel, hence in showcasing a diesel engine to the public, biodiesel is a sensible fuel to use.

In a non-racing diesel engine the diesel is injected into the engine in such a way as to provide a trade off between smoke generation and power. Fuel can however be injected in such a way that an engine will have more power and then emit smoke - this is not good for the environment. Hence, innovative use of technology to maximize power and reduce soot emissions on behalf of the European racing teams provides a useful advert for diesel, and specifically biodiesel.

In North America, where arguably the public has never really accepted diesel, the people who race diesel vehicles may inadvertently do the reputation of diesel engines a serious disservice.

Large diesel engines, fitted with turbo chargers and nitrous and in some cases water injection systems creates monstrously powerful engines which emit clouds of black smoke. The take home message to spectators watching this racing is 'wow those engines are powerful' followed by 'but I wont drive one for the same reason I wont drive a steam engine to work'. The general American public may certainly want powerful engines but not those that belch black smoke as seen in diesel drag races in the US - not good marketing for diesel. To see pictures of high power diesel dragsters belching black smoke visit the following site: To see pictures of this biodiesel dragster visit here:

Shifting one of the world's largest consumers of fuel for motor vehicles to environmentally friendly biodiesel may be a tough task if public perceptions of powerful but smoking vehicles remains. The people who are excited by diesel engines therefore represent a small minority, and are likely to remain that way, as could diesel fuel in North America. Aside from the environmental, economic and political reasons fuelling the USA's current current bio-fuel focus on bioethanol as an alternative source of fuel for motor vehicles, public perception of diesel and specifically biodiesel may be an overlooked factor.

From the perspective of development in Africa, biodiesel production has the potential to create jobs and wealth in many parts of the continent where crops such as Jatropha are being planted on a massive scale. In this way, Africa has the potential to become a major world biofuel producer, however, this hinges on the correct global fuel balance being achieved, and acceptance by the USA public, a major global market for this fuel.

Biodiesel is arguably the more environmentally friendly alternative to bioethanol, providing for comparatively more efficient cleaner engines than ethanol powered gasoline engines. Bioethanol production in the USA has also come under sharp criticism if produced from non-cellulosic human food crops such as maize. The time may be ripe for a sharper focus on biodiesel and time for diesel's reputation to get a marketing makeover. A good place to start are with the major sponsors of motorsport in the US.

Ethanol powered engines will run on fuels made from the US corn surpluses which currently feed Africa - so the uptake of diesel technology may very well have more than one impact on a continent which ironically will bear the brunt of the impact of climate change.


April 2007