After reading the news on the end of the 48-hour strike by employees at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland last month, I was quite relieved. I have to use my car to go to work and didn’t want to see another increase in petrol prices, or worse still no petrol in the pumps. I’ve been wondering ever since: why haven’t we in the UK started using the petrol-ethanol mixture as they do in Brazil? The obvious answer is that we haven’t got the climate or the land to grow sugarcane and, compared to Brazil and the USA (the other major ethanol producer) the UK hardly have any land to grow anything more than food for ourselves and our farm animals, to even think about growing extra crops for ethanol (wheat or sugar beat). However, would it be viable for us to import ethanol? To get some further answers to these questions I searched the web and the CAB Abstracts. I soon realised that we are already using buses run on ethanol and might be running cars on ethanol in the UK pretty soon.

As reported in the Ethanol Producer Magazine, on March 10 2008, Nottingham became the first city in England to operate a regular bus service with ethanol-fueled vehicles. Three newly delivered Scania E95 single-deck buses from Sweden took over service on the city’s No. 30 route, as reported in an article entitled ‘England receives ethanol buses’ . Reading, Berkshire, is also awaiting the arrival of 14 ethanol-powered double deckers for service soon. Scania buses run on 93.6% ethanol, 3.6% ignition improver and 2.8% denaturants, and Scania said its engines pollute less, up to 90% less CO2 emission than diesel, if the ethanol is made from Brazilian sugarcane. The exhaust-recirculation system requires no after-treatment of exhaust gases. On the downside, ethanol-fueled buses use nearly 40% more fuel than diesel buses because of ethanol’s lower energy content. An E95 bus priced between €11,000 and €22,000 is more expensive than the diesel model. The UK ethanol bus users group reported that ethanol costs 2% more than petrol. Ethanol prices track rising oil prices; however, bus operators can lock into the 10-year ethanol supply contracts.

In an article entitled BP, ABF, DuPont to build UK ethanol plant, the Ethanol Producer Magazine reported that in late June 2007 these 3 companies unveiled plans for the construction of a $400 million ethanol plant in Hull, UK. The new plant is expected to be operational by late 2009. A 5000-gallon-per-year demonstration plant is also in the plans.

I found over 1300 records on ethanol added in the last 6 months to the CAB Abstracts database alone. While browsing through them, I realised there’s a lot of research done on all aspects of using ethanol as a fuel. Not just praises for this new renewable fuel, which will solve the problem with running out of fossil fuel, but also some arguments against going down that route. The main argument against is related to ethanol crops encouraging deforestation and the use of land for food products to grow ethanol crops instead.

All suggests that we might be soon less dependent on oil as a fuel to power our cars and depend on the land instead. Biofuels produce less pollution, but a few questions remains: will our land be able to support production of biofuel crops as well as food crops? Does burning ethanol produce less pollution? Since ethanol is usually obtained from plants, which take up the same carbon during growth that is later released during the combustion process, greenhouse gas emissions can also be significantly lower than those from diesel buses. The extent of this depends on how the ethanol is produced. Generally, if ethanol is produced from cellulose, which is currently very expensive, greenhouse gas emissions are very low, if not zero. However, if produced from corn, emissions may actually increase. The last question which popped up in my head was: and what if biofuel crops farmers or the ethanol producers would strike over something too?

If you want to keep informed about the latest developments on biofuels, you should join the CABI Biofuels Information Exchange ( for free access to over 35,000 research records on biofuels from our CAB Abstracts Database, as well as links to pertinent third party biofuels reports and books, news summaries, discussion forum and more!


  1. Nick Water Coolers on 4th July 2008 at 11:38 am

    I saw a program on TV the other night which focused on a number of alternative fuels for running vehicles. The Government always seems to come up with the viable cost of these alternative. I think they just want to protect the massive taxes they collect on diesel! As far as importing alternative products, wouldn’t we eventually get into a spiralling price rise like oil eventually (supply – demand). I think in the UK we need to find alternatives that we can produce ourselves. Who knows, someone might come up with a revolutionary product that we could Export one day – and then rip-off the countries that are ripping us off now. There’s my rant for the day (sorry).

  2. Vera Barbosa on 7th July 2008 at 10:56 am

    Thanks for your comment Nick. I do agree that governments take into account the taxes they collect on fossil fuels before any consideration of other alternative fuels. However, both bioethanol and biodiesel are being produced and used in Europe, more biodiesel than bioethanol. Biodiesel accounts for more than 70% of production and consumption of transport biofuels in the EU. The European ethanol industry has just 38 plants, mostly in France and Germany, which produced 1.6 billion litres (424 million gallons) of ethanol in 2006. In contrast, the 185 biodiesel plants dotting Europe, most again in France and Germany, produced 4.5 billion litres (1.2 billion gallons) in 2006, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s information service. I do believe however there’s another alternative for producing fuels for energy, which will not inflict serious damage on the environment or disrupt our food supply, i.e. microorganisms-based options. Microorganisms can convert waste biomass into methane and hydrogen gas.

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