Fuel too expensive? Switch to biofuels

When German engineer Rudolf Diesel invented the efficient engine that now bears his name, the idea was to provide affordable energy for smaller industries and farmers. He initially powered his engine using peanut oil and coal dust, and indeed he designed the engine to use vegetable oils. Diesel eventually discovered that the by-product of crude oil distillation called ‘distillate’ was the best match. This distillate was eventually renamed to ‘diesel fuel’, as it is currently known in many countries. Diesel observed in 1912 that “The use of vegetable oils as engine fuels may seem insignificant today but such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal‐tar products of the present time.” That time, the time for biofuels has now arrived.

Vegetable oils do not pollute and are environmentally clean; they are a renewable form of energy. However the use of this and other renewable sources raises issues of public taxation, especially when used to power motor vehicles.

Your car is a vehicle for taxes

Fossil fuel is not intrinsically expensive. The consumer price is escalated because governments use it for revenue collection. Your car is a convenient vehicle for carrying all manner of government taxes. Fuel is the blood of an economy; it is used to power vehicles and industries. It is also used in the household for cooking. Any tax on fuel is guaranteed to touch every member of society. Excise duty is charged on fossil fuels due to its polluting nature. Excise is a penalty that accounts for the negative effects of pollution that result from using fossil fuel. Governments will continue to tax fuel to raise revenue.

See: Tax is the devil in Kenya’s high fuel cost

See: Petrol price to hit Shs. 130 as VAT charge kicks in

The landed cost of petroleum was Shs. 57 per litre in early September when VAT was introduced. The difference in price between super, regular, diesel and kerosene is purely the result of the taxation policy. These include excise duty and value added tax. Levies charged on the fuel are merchant shipping levy, road maintenance levy, petroleum development levy, petroleum regulation levy and railway development levy. Other charges go towards storage and the movement of the fuel through the pipeline and by trailers. The oil marketers also get their share. All this added Shs. 72 to the price, more than doubling it.

Death and taxes

The only three things that are certain are death, taxes and a desire to pay less tax. Tax and levies constitute the largest fraction to the cost of fuel in Kenya, about half of the price; Caesar’s cut is truly the largest! Oil marketers also contribute to the high costs of fuel. They have previously colluded and exhibited monopolistic tendencies in their pricing. The Energy Regulatory Commission attempted to curb this collusion by capping the maximum price. The marketers however interpreted this as a de facto price control, and now price the product at the maximum price, regardless of their costs.

Use biofuels to cut out the middle-men

It is clear that ‘manufacturing’ your own fuel will cut out the middle men and deliver substantial cost savings. You can achieve this by using various renewable sources of energy. This however implies that you will be using the roads without paying the road maintenance levy if you fuel your car in this way! A few years ago the UK traffic police carried a series of raids to nab those using cooking oil to power their vehicles. They charged the drivers with tax evasion. The UK law now allows for tax free usage of 2,500 litres of vegetable oil for automotive purposes annually. Many other countries provide tax breaks for use of renewable fuels. Use of vegetable oil should ideally not be subject to excise since it is ‘green’ and not polluting.

The technology issues are more straightforward. The use of vegetable oil to power cars is a mature technology and is already widely applied. You can hack and modify your own engine or use your local mechanic to do the job. Modification kits are commercially available in many countries. You will however need to consider a few issues.

Vegetable oil can be used in three forms. It can be used straight as pure plant oil (PPO), or first utilised for other purposes and then the waste used for automotive purposes (waste vegetable oil, WVO). It can also be first converted to ‘biodiesel’. The typical diesel engine can use the fuel in any of these forms. Biodiesel can be used without any further processing or modification of the engine.

Used cooking oil

Waste vegetable oil may be obtained from typical restaurants; chips joints and other food processors that deep fry the food. Although it is called waste vegetable oil, it may contain animal and fish oil from cooking; a more accurate term is ‘used cooking oil, UCO’. The waste oil contains particulate matter, water and other impurities. The oil first needs some processing before use, otherwise it can damage the engine. Vegetable oil is also much thicker (that is more viscous) than diesel. In addition, the oil may crystallise in cold weather, blocking the fuel lines and fuel filters. This may require it to be preheated. The oil may have dangerous acid content. The equipment required for filtering your own fuel is readily available.

Using waste vegetable oil in a car may require some small modifications. Older diesel engines provide the best candidates for conversion.

The most popular solution is currently the ‘two-tank’ system. In this system we introduce filtered waste cooking oil into the normal fuel tank while we put diesel into an auxiliary tank. The auxiliary tank is usually located in the boot of the car.

Diesel fuel is used to start up the vehicle and also to flush the fuel lines before switching off the engines. The journey is carried out using the waste fuel. The waste fuel is fed from the main fuel tank.  The switching between diesel fuel and vegetable oil is achieved by installing a pair of solenoids. Heat exchangers transfer the heat from the engine’s coolant system to the vegetable oil in order to lower its viscosity.  The fuel supply is switched back to diesel before stopping the engine in order to clear the lines of vegetable oil. The vegetable oil may otherwise solidify and block the lines if it is left uncleared.

Renewable energy

Biodiesel is a renewable fuel that is made using natural vegetable oils and animal fats. It can also be made from waste vegetable oils. Using biodiesel has the advantage that it will generally not require you to modify a diesel engine.

Popularising the use of renewable energy will benefit the economy in several ways. It releases pressure from the importation of fossil fuel, hence saving foreign exchange for the country. Renewable energy will enhance energy independence. It will develop non-traditional industries, broaden the manufacturing base and provide employment. It will provide an impetus to establish industries for purification of the fuel and modification of vehicles. The provision of biofuel is a possible development industry for innovators to establish a new industry.

The policy framework is largely in place. It is now up to the innovators to take up the challenge and provide us with affordable energy.


The writer heads the Department of Flying Studies in the School of Aerospace Sciences of Moi University. odido@aerospacekenya.com

Twitter: @aerospaceKenya