What are biofuels?

Biofuels are plant based fuels for internal combustion engines. The most commonly used are biodiesel, straight vegetable oil and bio-ethanol (used in petrol engines). In the UK 'white' diesel is likely to contain up to 5% biodiesel, and similarly, petrol may contain up to 5% sugar based ethanol. If the fuel contains a higher proportion of biodiesel/bio-ethanol then this must be made clear to the customer.

Are all biofuels 'green'
or “have you got a orang-utan in your tank?”

The UK government plans to see biofuels' use rise to 5% of fuel use in the transport sector by 2010, and the EU plans to see a 10% use by 2020. However the European Environment Agency reckons that we would need to use up to a quarter of the EU cropland to achieve this 10% target. Doing this would cause a further intensification of agriculture, put pressure on food supplies and lead to the use of land set aside for conservation. Currently this is politically unacceptable and uneconomic, and already oil for bio-diesel comes mainly from the far East.

Palm Oil

Most of the oil for biodiesel is palm oil from South East Asia, very often grown on recently cleared rainforest and drained peatlands. Burning ancient forest and drying out peat bogs release scary amounts of CO2 (quite apart from habitat destruction and species loss!) Indonesia currently has 6 million hectares of monoculture palm plantations, and plans 20 million more. Friends of the Earth estimated that in Malaysia 87% of deforestation between 1985 and 2000 was due to palm oil plantations. A direct result of this is that orang-utans are threatened with extinction in the next 12 years since 90% of their habitat has been destroyed.

Not only do palm oil plantations cause serious environmental destruction, but there are many documented cases of displacement of indigenous peoples and poverty amongst plantation workers.

One of the main points of using biofuels is to reduce CO2 emissions, but according to Biofuels Watch biodiesel made from palm oil grown on drained peatlands can have carbon emissions up to 8 times the equivalent in fossil diesel!

Currently almost all palm oil goes into food products and cosmetics, but as sales of commercially made biodiesel increase, so do the palm plantations.

European grown biofuel crops

Biofuels can be made from European crops too - currently most of the bio-ethanol available in this country is made from British grown sugar. Unfortunately there are question marks over just how CO2 neutral biofuels really are. Fossil fuels are used at every stage - from fertilisers and pesticides, to transportation and processing. There have been several studies (including DEFRA reports) showing that biofuel production methods can result in more carbon being emitted than if the equivalent amount of fossil fuels were burnt in the engine. These reports are the ones that include the energy that goes into the fertiliser, whereas reports that claim lower overal emissions appear to concentrate on the energy use and emissions that go into the processing of the oil into biodiesel.

As mentioned above, CO2 emissions aren't the only problems associated with producing biofuels - there are plenty of other negative effects on our society and our landscapes. It's also a question of priorities - a tankful of bio-ethanol has enough maize in it to feed one person for a year.

Finally, consider this: if 10% of our transport fuel requirements can be covered with 25% of our croplands, then even if we convert all our food growing land we can still only grow enough oil crops for 40% of our transport needs!

Using Waste Oil

Making biofuels from fresh plant based oil clearly can't solve our problems, but we can use waste oil. Used oil, readily available from chip shops and restaurants can provide more than enough for small scale production, and uses a resource that would otherwise be wasted, making the oil effectively carbon neutral (unfortunately there are carbon emissions caused by the processing into biodiesel which can be quite high).

What's the difference between biodiesel and SVO?

Biodiesel is vegetable or animal oils and fats processed (transesterified) by adding alcohol (methanol or ethanol) and a catalyst (usually NaOH - caustic soda or KOH - potash). This process isn't difficult or particularly dangerous to carry out and is described in detail in How To Make Biodiesel

SVO - Straight Vegetable Oil is what it says, just veg oil. People usually mean fresh oil, rather than waste oil, but depending on how thick the oil is (caused by overheating, heavy use or just standing around) you can filter and use waste oil in the same way as you would fresh oil.

Will my engine run on biodiesel/SVO?

NB: this is general advice - don't rely on it, but do ask around and check the web before carefully experimenting on your own engine. Most people start with 5% biodiesel (with the rest red or white diesel) and gradually increase the proportion of biodiesel to see how their engine copes.

Most engines will run well on biodiesel - particularly the older types often found in boats. The rule of thumb is generally: if it doesn't have a computer then it'll be fine. See the list below for details of boaters' experiences.

The quality of the biodiesel in question is also an issue. Some bigger producers have their fuel lab-tested to ensure it conforms to fuel oil standards. this kind of biodiesel should be fine in almost any engine. Remember to check with the producers that they really do use recycled oil though...

If you make your own biodiesel it is likely to be less standardised. The main issues are the acidity levels, which can corrode some rubber pipework and the consitency, as thicker oil can block injectors and damage fuel pumps. The first issue tends to be less of a problem on older engines - and anyway pipes are easily replacable. The second issue is where good information is essential. See the chart below and do your own research. There are also a number of sites for people running cars and vans on biofuels.

Many people run SVO successfully in their road vehicles. The generally accepted 'safe' way of doing it is to start the engine up using diesel or biodiesel, then switch over to oil when the engine is warm. Finally, before switching the engine off switch back to diesel/biodiesel to flush the veg oil out of the engine. This is because the veg oil dries and coagulates and in the long term may well cause problems. Biodiesel is a lot thinner than veg oil and is less likely to cause this kind of problem.

The problem for many boaters is that by the time the engine has warmed up (which takes longer than on a road vehicle since boat engines are usually adjusted to run at lower engine revs) it's time to turn off again. So unless you're cruising for longer periods, or perhaps on rivers with strong currents your engine may not get warm enough to use veg oil. We'd love to hear from boaters who have used veg oil for a longer period of time to see if the practice is better than the theory!

Another way of overcoming this is to add a heating element to your veg-oil tank. These pre-heaters are available from vegoil motoring sites but will use around 8 - 10 amps so are probably only suitable for small tanks unless you have a bank of batteries for this purpose. [Does anyone know how long it would take to warm a tank of oil, of 'x' litres, to the right temperature to use ?]

Which engines have boaters tried with biodiesel?

Engine SVO/Biodiesel Blend used Notes


Lister ST2

100% biodiesel

100% biodiesel

no problems

no problems

Where can I get biodiesel?

Biodiesel is increasingly being sold at petrol stations - but please consider the above information on the environmental and social cost of using biofuels made from fresh oil.

There are biodiesel groups around making biodiesel from waste oil - ask around, or make your own!

Some suppliers:

How to make biodiesel

Details of how to make biodiesel, and deal with the paperwork for HM Customs and Revenues are on the How To Make Biodiesel page.

  • Biofuelwatch highlight the environmental impacts of the global biofuel market, especially the vast releases of greenhouse gases and considerable biodiversity losses they can cause.
  • The True Cost of our Biofuels - article on the wider social and environmental costs of growing bio-fuel crops.

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Not running on waste veg oil

I posted below about having my engine converted and promised to report back...
I took my boat along to 'Diesel Veg' in Wolverhampton.
Here are the problems we looked at:
- We had intended using the main fuel tank for veg oil and installing a 20l extra tank for diesel to start the engine and flush through before stopping it. Because the fuel tank is below the waterline, the veg oil would be too cold, encouraging sludging. Therefore, we decided we could install a small tank for the veg oil inside the engine room and continue to use the main tank for diesel. No room in the engine hole but wall-mounted space available in the engine room itself.
- My fuel pump was a problem, as I'd known it might be. It's a Lucas CAV pump and these often break down with veg oil. It would have been better with a Bosch pump apparently. We were going to add a whole new fuel filter and lift pump to help overcome the problem.
- I was going to have a purge alarm fitted to ensure I always switched back to diesel before stopping the engine as the veg oil would thicken and cool overnight and be impossible to de-gunk in the morning.
- Filtering the waste veg oil. The oil has to be filtered down to 1 micron - much finer than my efforts to filter with muslin. Diesel Veg sell an electric pump but I learnt today that it's a 240V pump. The guys said I could maybe manage okay with a filter 'sock' they could provide me with, that could drain through overnight.
Each problem was sort-of being overcome until we hit the real stumbling block - temperature.
The team were looking to heat the veg oil via the calorifier pipes to lessen its viscosity as it entered the engine but the temperature just wouldn't get high enough for this to happen. Chugging along at 4 miles an hour wouldn't do it and the calorifier heats the water to about 60 degrees only. In a car, you'd be at the right temperature in a few minutes. They were reluctant to do the conversion, knowing it would be very unreliable and highly likely to break my fuel pump and I had to agree.

I'm gutted but would defintely recommend Diesel Veg for converting a car or van as they were so motivated, friendly and professional. Check out their website:

Running on waste veg oil

Making bio-diesel from waste veg oil does have extra enviro consequences as mentioned above and for continual cruisers like me, it's just not practical to be making the stuff on the move. So, I'm getting my engine 'adapted' to run directly on waste veg oil early next month.
I've got a CAV fuel pump which isn't a good type for this, so I'll need a fuel lift pump added on as the veg oil is heavier than diesel. (I think Lucas pumps are fine). I'm having a small extra tank fitted for ordinary diesel so I'll start the engine using ordinary evil diesel, then flicking a switch to go on to veg oil. The engineer didn't seem to think this would take more than a few minutes, after all, my water in the calorifier heats really quickly. Then when I stop, I'll need to switch back over to diesel for the last minute or two so that the engine 'sleeps' with a bellyfull of diesel. I'm having a 'purge alarm' added which will remind me to switch back if I forget and stop the engine.
I'm probably going to invest in a piece of kit (about £300!) to be able to filter the waste oil to the right level as salts and tiny particles can mess up your engine.
I'm their first narrowboat conversion so it's fingers crossed. I'll report back on how it went and maybe post some pics if anyone's interested. If it all goes horribly wrong or if I can't get hold of waste oil, I can just put diesel in the tank as usual.


The best and cheapest Biofuel is you-has anybody tried sculling a full size steel hull? Not a joke, perhaps someone has a more efficient design.

biofuel and veg oil WEBASTO

has anyone tried runnig their webasto on veg oil specificlly and does it coke up
how about biodeiesel?
thnaks tania

"has anyone tried runnig

"has anyone tried runnig their webasto on veg oil specificlly and does it coke up
how about biodeiesel?
thnaks tania"

Have you found the solution yet? I had some veg oil in my vehicle (car not boat) and wasn't using the webasto. However today after having had one full tank of diesel in I fired up the webasto. It was running fine all day until my tank started getting low. Then lots of smoke but it seems to have cleared up and is running fine again... so thinking perhaps some residue veggie oil got into the webasto as it did smell mildly of burnt vegetable oil.

ebi veg oil

I connected an Ebi to a bottle of pure new rape veg oil but it does light just a load of white smoke. The reason is the flash point of the oil is 380 degrees so it was too high for ignition, if you have some diesel mixed in it might work, the same for the diesel generator which works only in summer and not at 0 C