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Alternative Fuels for Transport

Robin Whittaker

from the Evolution of Modern Traction Seminar on 5th November 2005

There are three reasons for developing alternative fuels for transport: the imperative to reduce carbon emissions, impending oil and gas exhaustion and common sense.  Currently 97% of the power for UK transport comes from mineral oil.  Only 0.3% of motor fuel is furnished by recycled vegetable oil.  The UK is nowhere near meeting its EU obligations of at least 5% of motor fuels from biofuels by 2010.   So how have these problems suddenly arisen?   In 1956 the geologist M. King Hubbert of  Shell research in Houston predicted that US crude oil production would fall in 1970.  It did.  However Hubberts contention that there was a similar bell shaped curve for  world oil output was not without critics such as Professor Peter Odell [1] of Erasmus University.  Consequently Hubbert went unheeded until the publication of Hubberts Peak [2] in 2001. This was followed by Richard Heinbergs The Partys Over [3] in 2003, which spelt out the serious social consequences of oil and gas depletion.  Gas is a feedstock for fertilisers.   Heinberg showed that many currently touted high tech solutions are impractical.  Nuclear power is only virtually limitless when dangerous plutonium is employed.  Uranium is not abundant [4] and its production entails use of hydrocarbon fuels and toxic waste.

Waste is encouraged by flaws within the present neo-classical economic paradigm.  Classical economics ante-dated Clausiuss 1865 Laws of Thermodynamics [5] and today only a handful of environmental economists acknowledge these principles.  The use of Discounted Cash Flow tables, invented by the Dutch Engineer Simon Stevin in 1582 for loans,  by multi-national corporations places a Net Present Value on finite resources. This impels growth and the speedy consumption of irreplaceable stocks.

The best alternative fuel is no fuel.  Increased prices could reduce motorists fuel consumption by 50% by stimulating the purchase of thrifty cars. Cycling accounts for 30% of the mode split in many Dutch and Danish cities but only a tiny fraction of that in the United Kingdom.  Horses are here - 965.000 in the U.K..  Their energy comes ultimately from the sun and though they might not  be practical in cities, they could help in the countryside. Methane can be extracted from biological wastes and used for domestic heating or traction. Logistics is another area of concern with hitherto falling road haulage costs leading to over centralisation of warehousing.  Between 1953 and 2002 road haulage ton miles increased 2.5 times tonnage.[6]

Meantime Indian Railways are forging ahead with oil from the Jatropha Curcas tree being the most promising. This shrub is ideal for semi arid conditions.  It can stand a mild frost.  Holy cows hate it, hence it makes excellent railway hedging.  Details of these developments may be found by typing Indian Railways Biofuels into a search engine.  In Britain research should be undertaken on the economical movement and sorting of wagon load freight - a concern of the late Gerard Fiennes.[7]  


  1. SMIL V. Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties, CAMBRIDGE Mass, MIT Press, pb, 2005, pp. 199-201;
  2. DEFFEYES K.S. Hubberts Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, PRINCETON, Princeton University Press, 2001;
  3. HEINBERG R.  The Partys Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, FOREST ROW, Clairview, 2003;
  4. RISTINEN R.A. and KRAUSHAAR J.J. Energy and the Environment, NEW YORK, John Wiley, 1999, p. 184;
  5. GEORGESCU-ROEGEN N.  The Entropy Law and the Economic Process , CAMBRIDGE Mass, Harvard University Press, 1071, p. 129;
  6. BOYES G. The British Road Haulage Industry since 1954. Journal of the Railway and Canal Historical Society, Vol 34 Pt 8 No 188, May 2004, p. 519;
  7. FIENNES G. Fiennes on Rails: Fifty years of  railways as seen by Gerard Fiennes, NEWTON ABBOT, 1986, p. 8.