Chocolate fuels a carbon-negative voyage from England to Timbuktu

England's BioTruck team aims to promote greener alternatives to fuels like ethanol.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

While others eat their way through advent calendars this Christmas season, two Britons are doing something quite different with their chocolate: using it to drive across the Sahara.

More precisely, Andy Pag and John Grimshaw are fueling a 4,473-mile journey from Poole, England, to Timbuktu, Mali, using 3 tons of discarded chocolate converted into 396 gallons of fuel.

While the expedition might sound like an attempt at making the Guinness World Records, it's actually aimed at showing off greener alternatives to fossil fuels and even biofuels like ethanol. And they claim the trip will be the world's first carbon-negative voyage.

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"That means that we will actually be saving emissions that would be in the atmosphere if we'd stayed at home," says Mr. Pag, whose "BioTruck" carries with it two large plastic vats of the chocolate-turned-fuel.

According to CarbonAided, the independent company that is evaluating the trip's carbon footprint, or lack thereof, they will be able to save 15 tons of emissions thanks to a combination of techniques.

As well as emitting fewer greenhouse gases, biodiesel burns more efficiently and so releases fewer harmful pollutants than conventional diesel.

Moreover, all the expedition's equipment, including the truck and the two four-wheel-drive vehicles (which also run on biodiesel) that will take them to Timbuktu, has been salvaged from the scrap yard and will remain in Mali where it will continue to be used. They hope to offset more carbon by taking a small processing unit to convert waste oil products into fuel, which they will donate to a charity in Mali.

But the trip would not be carbon-negative were it not for the nature of their fuel, made by recycling waste chocolate – misshapen Easter eggs and bars, and other products that would otherwise go to landfills and decompose, creating methane gas.

Ecotec, a British company that researches and produces biodiesel, developed the technology, although it says it did not organize the expedition as a public relations stunt. The trip was the result of Pag's insistence.

Looking at his scruffy clothes and the rusty vehicle, it looks as if Pag, a filmmaker, and Mr. Grimshaw, a mechanic, are trying to travel on the cheap more than for the environment.

The two met eight years ago while crossing the Sahara on motorbikes, and now they say they regret the effects of high carbon emissions in the area.

"Timbuktu is a city that has suffered from the effect of climate change. Once a river port town, the shifting sands of the Sahara have moved the river [12 miles] away and are now threatening the towns [sic] very existence as enormous dunes encroach on the outskirts," according to the BioTruck website.

Chris Elvey, codirector of Ecotec, says he saw an opportunity in the 5,000 tons of waste chocolate that a British company, which prefers not to be named, gets rid of every year. "Chocolate is ideal for making biodiesel," he says.

It contains fat, which when combined with recycled cooking oil can be transformed into the basis for the fuel, and sugar, which can be distilled into ethanol, the other ingredient needed for diesel.

The final product does not smell at all like chocolate, but like paint and looks like runny honey.

"This way we're doing the chocolate factory a favor by taking away their waste, we're doing the local government a favor by occupying less space in their landfills, but most importantly, we're doing the environment a favor by reducing our carbon footprint," says Mr. Elvey.

The demand for biofuel crops, such as corn, over the past couple of years has risen sharply, especially following appeals by President Bush and the European Union to substitute fossil fuels with biofuels.

With the rise in demand, there has been growing questioning of the real environmental and social price of biofuels. In the most recent report on the subject in October, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, called the process of transforming crops into biofuel "a crime against humanity."

Ziegler said he is concerned that biofuels would bring more hunger by pushing the price of some crops to record levels and called for a five-year moratorium on biofuel production. His worries have been echoed by activists in the developing world and economists alike. Environmentalists have also questioned the overall carbon footprint of fuels made from crops as it takes a lot of carbon to run farms and produce fertilizers.

Biofuels made from waste, on the other hand, are a completely different story as they are not made from crops. Besides chocofuel, Elvey's Ecotec produces biodiesel processors like the one the BioTruck team will leave behind in Mali, which use recycled cooking oil as raw material.

With a processor, making biodiesel at home only takes a few hours and costs much less than fossil fuel.

Transforming chocolate into fuel, however, is not yet cost-effective if done at home, says Elvey. And some environmental groups say biofuels from food waste are not viable alternatives to fossil fuels.

BioTruck has already run into some problems on its way to Mali.

When Pag and Grimshaw hit the Pyrenees while crossing into Spain from France, the fuel, which is additive-free, started freezing. They waited a couple of days hoping the temperatures would rise, but had to finally add some regular fuel. This will be taken into account by CarbonAided to assess the trip's total carbon footprint, says Pag in a phone call from the border between Mauritania and Mali. Some bureaucratic problems while entering Morocco further delayed the trip, which is now scheduled to finish in Mali on Sunday.

But Elvey at Ecotec remains positive. "I am a firm believer that we can be self-sustaining because of the amount of rubbish we produce."

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