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Germany

Of Fast Cars and French Fries

With the cost of crude oil continuing to climb, an increasing number of consumers and companies are running their vehicles on cooking oil -- but the country's motoring body says this could be dangerous.

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Roaring ahead with rapeseed oil

Who cares about the price of petrol, when you can take matters into your own hands and simply use rapeseed oil? It's what most people throw onto a salad, but an increasing number of Germans are also pouring this vegetable oil straight into their tanks as a substitute for diesel.


"It's a bit better than the cold-pressed variety, if you're using it for your car," said Lothar Lauxen, a veggie-oil enthusiast. "You can also use it for French fries if you want -- the quality's just as good."

He has his own garage, and also runs a business supplying rapeseed oil. He even drives around Frankfurt in a car with his company's motto plastered all over the vehicle in fluorescent green that says: "I drive on pure rapeseed oil."

Just like making French fries

He's got every reason to be proud of himself. Conventional oil and diesel are getting ever more expensive, and bio-diesel is hard to get. For the time being, the network of stations selling it isn't large.

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Vegetable oils can be multi-purpose

More motorists are following Lauxen's lead. They buy rapeseed oil by the bottle from the local supermarket or, cheaper still, from a wholesaler. Then it's just a matter of tipping it into the tank -- just like filling up a vat for making French fries.

Of course, you have to put your car into the garage for conversion beforehand -- at a cost of a couple of thousand euros.

"We converted 13 trucks for one of our customers," said Lauxen. "He now saves 280,000 euros a year when filling up."

An environmentally friendly alternative

Berthold Haas is a self-employed electrician. He's dropped in to see Lauxen and to buy his weekly dose of rapeseed oil.

"I save two-thirds of what I used to pay to fill up a tank," he said.

The European Union's been pushing for the development of pure vegetable oils as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fuels for some time. In some EU countries, they're still banned. Critics say this is because governments miss out on the taxes that they usually rake in from standard fuels.

Not recommended

In France, you can even get fined for using pure vegetable oil. But according to distributors, a few thousand motorists do it anyway.

The idea's fast catching on in Germany, too -- especially among truck companies. But the country's main motoring organization, ADAC, doesn't like the idea.

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"It's legal and there's no problem using it to run a vehicle, but we don't recommend it," said Ulrich Buchmann from the ADAC. Damage can occur unless the right adjustments are made to diesel engines. And the oil can pose other problems too.

"You also can't claim for damages if anything goes wrong," said Buchmann. "It's also problematic in winter, as it starts to clog up at very cold temperatures."

A proven track record

But veggie campaigners say that's no problem, and point out that you just need to add a bit of diesel during the chillier months.

"We've been running this business for more than two-and-a-half years," said Lauxen. "Our customers have done hundreds of thousands of kilometers on this stuff and haven't had any problems."

Commodity traders say the increasing trend for pure rapeseed oil among truck drivers, taxis and regular motorists is already evident, with production levels in Germany suddenly reaching capacity earlier this season.

Rocketing prices

Market analyst Martin Schrah from the German firm ZMP in Bonn says another sign is that rapeseed oil prices have gone through the roof as a result of the strong demand.

"They've jumped by about thirty percent in the last six months," he said. "Many smaller farms have set up their own presses to produce the oil on location, either as a form of energy or for cooking oil."

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Alternatives to diesel have never been more popular

He says the mills are working flat out, and still can't keep up with demand. Processors are now increasingly forced to look abroad to satisfy the growing hunger for vegetable oils in Germany -- whether it's for cooking or taking the Merc out for a spin.

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