Article Search


Biofuel - is it the right way to save the planet?


Auto Adviser

Mobil’s limited introduction of 91 octane biofuel opens the door to semi-alternative fuels for the masses. Petrol that’s partly “grown” suddenly becomes of interest to the wider motoring public – not just those whose cars must run on 98 octane. But I’ll bet you’ve forgotten most of the stuff that was said about biofuel when Gull began offering a 98 octane blend last August. Will it be good for your car, or wreck it? It’s time for a quick review.

I’ve used the term “semi-alternative” because biofuels are much more “fuel” than “bio”. For example, Mobil’s 91 is a three percent blend and Gull’s a 10 percent blend. It may not be as extreme as turning used fish and chip oil into diesel, but it’s a start.

Biofuel is a generic term for fuels that can be made from, or are made up of, renewable material of plant or animal origin. Within the overall grouping, bioethanol is a partial petrol substitute and biodiesel is a diesel substitute.
The Government likes the stuff and its biofuel bill, yet to be passed, mandates a proportion of biofuels in national petrol/diesel sales. So make no mistake that they will be coming to a service station near you. The Mobil fuel is available in the lower North Island, but expect distribution to widen.

Mobil uses Brazilian sugarcane-derived ethanol while Gull sources whey from Fonterra. High food prices worldwide are partly blamed on production of certain crops changing from food to fuel production, but Mobil insists its source doesn’t contribute to the problem.

Biofuel burns cleaner and reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced. Someone using 30 litres of biofuel a week will reportedly save more than 250kg of carbon dioxide emissions a year. The question of fuel economy is thorny. Some overseas studies have shown improvements, others have shown higher consumption, but in both cases the differences are small. An E number indicates the amount of ethanol in the mix; for example E10 is a 10 percent mix.  The three common mixes are E3, E5 and E10.  Fuel marketers put their own spin on the number. For example, Gull calls its blend Force 10. Most new and near-new cars are suitable for ethanol blends of E10 or beyond, but it becomes complicated for older models. There are even cases when, for example, a New Zealand-new model may be able to use blended fuel, but its imported Japanese domestic market equivalent may not.
The best way to be sure is to ask the manufacturer or the service department of a dealership. Other organisations including the AA and the Motor Industry Association (MIA) have produced comprehensive lists online, but they cover only new vehicles.

If you fuel a car with biofuel against the manufacturer’s recommendation, it probably won’t immediately start smoking and making loud noises. Instead, it’s more likely to cause gradual deterioration or failure of components in the fuel line. “Using a 10 percent ethanol blended fuel in non-compatible car could cause a number of problems, including fuel leaks and fuel line deterioration, and possibly invalidate a mechanical warranty,” warned Gull. It said at the introduction of the fuel that any used import, regardless of age, was unlikely to be suitable for its Force 10 and that any car with a carburettor was “highly unlikely” to be suitable.  However, manufacturers say several models since 2006 could handle E10. There’s not such a problem with the more dilute E3. Vehicle manufacturers say most imports should be able to use it, so long as they’re not carburated. But there’s still that element of doubt.

Auto Adviser thinks that if you have an older vehicle, import of otherwise, stay away from biofuels as long as you can and help save the planet in some other way.

Auto Trader New Zealand