January 14 – 2015 Christopher Maltin gives a talk to the ANVIL discussion group in Wincanton on The World’s Most Environmentally Friendly Fuel Christopher Maltin provided us with an excellent informative and challenging presentation on diesel, biomethane and natural gas as fuels which took us to places most of us had not recognized before. What follows is my report and reflections on his talk.
An Environmental Game-Changer. Replace Diesel with Gas Christopher presented us with the possibility of the widespread adoption of biomethane which is a renewable fuel produced from vegetable matter – such as organic waste – and natural gas which is a fossil fuel. This he suggests should be used to replace and adapt the most polluting vehicles on our roads, that is the diesel powered buses, lorries and large public service vehicles and yes cars. This could then make an immediate and desperately needed improvement to the air we breathe.
Diesel Particulates. The Current Carcinogenic Health Danger. When we think of global warming and the environment we naturally and rightly think of CO2, carbon dioxide, the product of burning petrol, diesel, biomethane and natural gas. They are not however, equally harmful for there is a more immediate danger. In our cities – of which London is the worst offender – we now have frighteningly high levels of carcinogenic particulates and nitrogen dioxide which are being breathed in by people of all ages from diesel engines. The Lancet reports these cause 7.4% of heart attacks. Exposures have also been linked not only to short term headache, nausea and labored breathing, but to cardiopulmonary disease, lung cancer and “decreased cognitive function in older men.” In fact the full negative health effects from the nanoparticles produced by all types of diesel are still being uncovered. Particularly worrying is the effect of these particulates on the brains and bodies of children going to school on elderly diesel-powered buses.
A Costly Step Too Far? My immediate reaction to Christopher’s talk was that surely such a change could not take place. There is not enough biomethane available and to produce it would be very costly. Christopher’s response was that the amount of food and biological waste which we currently produce is vast. Much goes to landfill or rots in dumps which produce uncaptured methane. When this is released into the atmosphere it is some 32 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide. If waste was brought to conversion plants to be dealt with by microbial fermentation, the outcome could be enough biomethane to power all the buses and lorries in the capitol. Set against current waste-disposal costs and the cost of diesel at the pumps, running vehicles on this biomethane should work out economically viable if not cheaper.
So Why Has No-one Got Rid of Diesel Yet? Actually they have. Christopher then surprised us with a series of graphs, tables and photographs showing how many towns and cities have already replaced their diesel buses and public sector trucks if not with biomethane then with gas powered vehicles. (Madrid, Beijing, Turin etc) He pointed out that the Chinese government faced with an unprecedented growth in pollution in Beijing has banned all diesel vehicles from driving into the city and has replaced or adapted all its heavy vehicles to run on gas. Christopher then amazed us with his account of what has happened in Iran. There the government faced with huge reserves of oil and gas, oil which it can sell abroad, gas which it cannot, has now replaced or adapted all diesel and petrol driven vehicles with gas.
The Misuse of Oil as a Fuel Long term Christopher considers that burning oil is a misuse of a non-renewable resource as it becomes increasingly valuable and essential in the manufacture of the plastics and fibres we now take for granted. .At the same time natural gas is underused and the production of biomethane from waste could be increased enormously. These two could then be powering our lorries, cars, ships and factories, in fact anywhere oil is used as a fuel. While that would not reduce CO2 emissions as regards natural gas, biomethane works out as a neutral renewable. To use the two instead of oil would be to conserve what is a finite natural resource which is currently being wasted at a prodigal rate while it contributes to lethal pollution. .
That Awful EU and Those Irritating Germans Christopher pointed out that Germany is on track to become self-sufficient in energy within five years. They are developing biomethane plants and making more use of natural gas. He also described how Mercedes Benz are now producing gas driven cars for the German market and explained how the Government there is also providing incentives to those who change from diesel to gas. He then surprised us with pictures showing most European car makers are bringing out gas driven models of most of their cars and that a huge network of gas filling stations is spreading out across Europe. Currently Britain has only nine such stations.
Why Are We Lagging Behind? Good question. Christopher cites arrogance about learning from “foreign” examples, ignorance of the engineering and economic advantages together with those who have vested interests in the status quo. For example he recognizes that the rewriting of manuals and the retraining of motor mechanics and engineers to deal with a modified technology is expensive. Then there is a tax system where fuel pump revenue is huge. This has put business off from investing in costly new commercial vehicles when the cost of the gas could be increased by government whim.
Hope for the Future ? Despite frequently disappointing meetings with uncomprehending politicians from all the parties who he feels cannot look further ahead than the popular issues that will see them re-elected, Christopher feels things are changing. A steady number of large companies, such as Sainsbury’s are replacing their heavy diesel trucks with gas driven models and where this is done they find not only are they cheaper to run, but their drivers greatly prefer them. They are quieter, smoother and cleaner than diesel.
Surely though the place for us to start is to follow California where the school buses were old and polluting. They have now all been replaced by gas driven buses. Taking care of our children must be the place to start.
A few days after Christopher gave his talk Channel 4 put out a programme with the above title pointing out that motorists were promised diesel would be the cheap, green fuel of the future, but it turns out that’s not the case. Instead the evidence is piling up that diesel is a dangerous polluting fuel which is placing all who drive in diesel vehicles and all who live and work in large cities at increasing risk to their health. The programme does not explore the biomethane and natural gas alteratives of gas driven vehicles, but what it reveals about diesel is pretty devastating. Make sure you watch it.
John Baxter (If there are any errors in this report, they are mine for Christopher has not been able to check it over because of work pressures.)