Tanking up with corn, grease and natural gas

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Q: Are alternative auto fuels like biodiesel practical?

A: It seems like there are a million ways you can fill ‘er up these days, especially if you follow prototype vehicles. Mad scientists have already concocted cars that run on plain water, compressed air and solar power. But in terms of what’s available on the street as we speak, there are a few alt-ways to tank up.

Like biodiesel. Indeed, even plain old diesel is more efficient than gas and so creates less carbon dioxide. But before you run to the next truck stop to fill up, know that diesel is ultimately dirtier than regular gas since it’s less refined, so burning it creates more sooty particulate matter. Plus, more crude oil is used to make diesel than to make gasoline, so plain diesel ain’t the answer.

But the silver lining is that any diesel engine can run on biodiesel blends. Toronto’s only biodiesel pump (at Queen and Pape) offers a blend of 20 per cent agriculturally grown soy and 80 per cent regular old diesel. In place of soy, sometimes biodiesel producer Topia’s blend uses (block your ears, vegans!) tallow. Kind of creepy, but it is a waste product of sorts (albeit of the polluting meat industry).

Pure biodiesel is basically any vegetable oil that’s been processed (often with methanol and lye). Most new diesel engines are supposed to be able to run on it. Just ask.

Now, straight veggie oil (SVO) is a whole other matter. If you want to pour a bottle of canola oil or filtered deep-fryer grease from a local burger joint into your tank, you need an SVO conversion kit ( or Otherwise you’ll end up mucking everything up, to put it technically. If you want to use it in winter, you might want to keep your car in a heated garage as well.

Keep in mind that carmakers might not honour your warranty if you’re using SVO or even biodiesel. Again, ask first. But of course, warranties only apply to new models.

The problem with agriculturally sourced fuels, however, is that large-scale farming comes with its own set of problems, including pesticides and genetically modified crops.

Pure biodiesel from waste cooking oil (or waste vegetable oil, WVO) is the eco-friendliest kind, but still involves some processing. This site offers info on making your own WVO, SVO and biodiesel blends:

Regular cars can also fill up on blended veg- or grain-based ethanol gasoline. E-10 is 10 per cent ethanol, and it’s available at over 1,000 service stations. It’ll reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, in part because the source plants suck up carbon dioxide as they grow. About a dozen kinds of cars can now run on an 85 per cent ethanol blend called E-85, including some Chrysler minivans, Ford Explorers and the Sebring Sedan. Trouble is, E-85 fuel is currently nearly impossible to find.

Of course, getting your gasoline-blended fuel from the fields involves the same problems mentioned in relation to biodiesel crops. Corn is the main source of ethanol in North America. You might imagine Ma and Pa farmer squeezing the fuel out of corn stalks in idyllic fields, and maybe that was true in ethanol’s early days. Increasingly, though, small and mid-sized farmers are being squeezed out of the game as monster agro corporations like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill move in and turn fuel corn into the $3 billion cash crop it is in the U.S.

Smaller farmers are also being squeezed out of the bio-refining process. Local biofuel production and refining would at least keep tanker trucks from criss-crossing the country. But analysts worry that the drive for more biofuels may run local food agriculture off the land. Sugar-based ethanol production in Brazil has certainly encouraged farmers there to clear rain forest and wild savannah lands in favour of sugar cane.

Another knock against corn-based ethanol? Some scientists say it requires more energy to produce than it creates, just like the Alberta tar sands oil. Canadian industry is supposedly working on alternatives, including making ethanol from agro residues like straw, corn stalks and forestry leftovers. We’ll have to wait and see who wins at the pumps.

Natural gas and propane (a by-product of natural gas production) are other alternative fuel sources. You might have seen delivery trucks, taxis and commercial vehicles powered by one of these two. Both are fossil fuels, just like gas or diesel, and digging out and piping natural gas to us has its own set of environmental implications. But both burn cleaner, produce fewer toxic pollutants and 20 per cent less global-warming emissions over their entire life cycle. They also cost less and are sourced locally (from Canada’s north) rather than overseas.

Natural gas and propane aren’t perfect, but they’re an option. Conventional gas cars can be converted to run on the stuff for $4,000 to $6,000 but won’t burn it as cleanly as engines designed for these fuels. For places to refuel on natural gas, check out for propane, go to

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