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Posted on  

July 13, 2001

FEATURE-Rapeseed oil used in French cars

Rapeseed oil, used widely in cooking oil and margarine because of its low saturated fat content, has made it out of the kitchen and into cars.

The oil of the yellow-flowered rapeseed plant does not on its own have the properties required to be used in motor engines. But when mixed with a chemical substance called methanol, it becomes a fuel with properties similar to diesel.

Referred to as diester -- a contraction of ``diesel'' and the rapeseed by-product ``ester'' -- the fuel has slowly but surely penetrated the French market, with most regular gas stations now offering diesel containing up to five percent diester.

``One (diesel) car out of two uses diester,'' said Bernard Nicol, general director of Diester Industries (DI), which markets diester on behalf of French oilseeds growers.


Few people in France realise that they use diester on a regular basis.

``It is 'Diester inside'. The French use diester without knowing it,'' Nicol said, coining a phrase from a computer chip maker's advert.

``The fact that diesel contains diester is told to everyone (in the sector) except consumers,'' he added. Most oil companies that use diester omit to mention it in French petrol stations, despite its green, politically correct image.

Car makers and petroleum companies prize the rapeseed fuel for its high level of oxygen and absence of sulphur, which give it a lubricating capacity seen as its main advantage.

Diester also helps reduce engines' carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, thus cutting harmful greenhouse effects, Nicol said.

``Diester is the best answer to reduce CO2 emissions,'' said Beatrice Perrier, an engineer at the French car maker PSA Peugeot Citroen , which produces engines that can use up to 30 percent diester without having to be overhauled.

Apparently seduced by biofuels' impact on ``greenhouse gases'', the European Commission said last month that it planned to present proposals later this year requiring that all oil refineries mix a percentage of biofuel with petrol.

Another green aspect of diester was spotlighted last year when the French oil giant TotalFinaElf used it as a biodegradable solvent to clean rocks polluted after a ship spilled oil along France's Atlantic coast.

The company, seeking to repair its image, said diester was best suited to the task because it was biodegradable, non-toxic and posed no threat to wildlife.


Diester, not to be confused with another biofuel called ethanol that is used as an additive to petrol, has also raised the hopes of long-suffering French oilseed farmers.

``The chance to transform vegetable oil into a biofuel that could replace diesel appeared to the oilseed sector as an opportunity not to be missed,'' said Pierre Cuypers, president of the French association for the development of biofuels.

The sector has been under a cloud since the EU cut oilseed subsidies as part of a 1992 farm reform, sparking an overall decline in French oilseed area.

But the reform also had a hidden benefit for diester.

Because it required farmers to set aside some of their land as fallow and because this land could be used to grow crops not destined for the food chain, the area of rapeseed earmarked for use in industry has steadily been rising.

``(Although) the area devoted to food rapeseed is decreasing, the possibility to exploit set-aside fields to non-food ends opened up new horizons for the oilseeds sector,'' DI said.


If diester has the same benefits as diesel, is environment-friendly and helps French farmers, why is it not being used more?

The answer, according to Nicol, boils down to taxes, supply and complex production procedures.

Each year, the French government approves an amount of diester to be exempt from a tax on fuel or additives for motor engines.

Because diester costs usually between 1.5 and 2 francs per litre more to produce than diesel, it needs this tax advantage to be competitive, explained Nicol, who said 320,000 tonnes of diester were exempted this year.

``We hope to produce 390,000 tonnes (of diester) in 2002. After that, it will all depend from the government and the National Assembly's willingness to develop biofuels,'' he said.

France, which makes its diester almost solely from rapeseed, is now the biggest producer in the world.


Even if Nicol wanted to market pure diester in gas stations and thereby compete with the oil companies that are currently his allies -- something he does not want to do -- there would not be enough rapeseed in France.

To produce 100 percent diester ``we would have to fill the French countryside with rapeseed fields,'' he said.

``Diester is a huge potential market but it is limited by France's ability to increase industrial rapeseed area'', said Georges Vermeersch, director of innovations at Sofiproteol, parent company of Diester Industries.

In Germany 100 percent diester is widely used in diesel engines.



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