Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sir Richard Branson wants to turn Virgin trains into the greenest in Britain by running them on biodiesel rather than pure diesel – 15% from biological sources such as rapeseed and soya. He’s also leading a plan to build the world’s largest bioethanol plant in America. Our next door nieghbour is suffering from a common complaint of British gardeners: an overhanging leylandii hedge (not ours I hasten to add).

What’s the connection?

Well, the conjunction of these two things in my head, along with memories of about 15 years of cutting leylandii hedges led me to speculate on a couple of things. Most biofuels are derived from edible oils taken from what are essentially food crops like the mentioned soya and rape, but do those crops seem oily? After years of trimming leylandii hedges I can attest to the fun of having to scrub blobs of resin from all over me. Also, what about the calorific value of these trimmings? Try burning green maize or rape and you’ve no chance. Put a lighter to a piece of leylandii and once hot enough it bursts into flame. Couldn’t we crop this stuff and turn it into biofuel?

Think of the advantages: it only has to be planted once, it’ll yield large quantities of trimmings once or twice a year. There would be little need for herbicides, insecticides or fungicides – ever see weeds growing under a leylandii hedge, ever see such a hedge wiped out by disease or insects? The areas between the rows, where tractors would necessarily have to run, could be left fallow. These, and the hedges themselves would be excellent refuges for wildlife. After processing for oil, what’s left could also be used as fuel, maybe compacted into briquettes, fed straight into a biofuel-burning power station or turned into bioethanol. It might even be used to make compressed fibre board or paper.

Now, are there any chemists out there who can tell me I’m talking bollocks?

7 comments:

Jose said...

I can't comment on the merits of your proposal but I want to chip in two cents on the pitfalls of biofuels.

Some of Blair's plans for biofuel involve producers in the developing world cutting down indigineous rainforests to make room for plantations whose crops will be sold as biofuel. I'm not sure if this was the original intention but its what's happening in Indonesia. Not a good idea if the whole point is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide circulating in the atmosphere. It turns out that we'd be better off burning coal than some of this so called biofuel.

Max Kaehn said...

I suspect that in the long term, algae is going to be the way to make biofuels.

Neal Asher said...

Jose, Blair is a politician and a lawyer by training, which means he can talk a good fight but wouldn't be able to find his backside with both hands. We need someone different in charge to deal with this sort of stuff. A chemist maybe...

Excellent article, Max. The problem, however, is that though this would be alright for somewhere like America, with its large desert and wild areas, it would fall flat in a country like Britain.

Max Kaehn said...

What if you used a bit of gene tinkering to make it possible for the algae to thrive in sea water? Just think of all the scenic views that could be ruined by having algal mats out to the horizon...

Neal Asher said...

Max, wasn't there something in the article about them using marine algae anyway? Don't matter where you put the stuff there'll be protesters there waving placards and demanding we return to some rural idyll.

Bruce Murphy said...

Flammability doesn't really relate to calorific value. Take a flammable plastic versus a piece of coal, for example.

Pacanukeha said...

I love how biofuel discussions in the US always seem to turn into plans for welfare-farming for poor destitute corn growers.