The low point of Sean Lee Davies' Southeast Asian road trip was having to beg in Kuala Lumpur. Sitting in the street, with a fuel container and signs pleading for help, he wasn't asking for money. He just needed a few litres of waste cooking oil to get him back on the road. He hadn't had much success knocking on restaurant doors, which he puts down to a lack of awareness.
It was the first setback on his quest to drive 2,500 kilometres from Singapore to Cambodia in an off-road vehicle powered only by used oil from restaurants and food hawkers. The journey was filmed for a recently aired reality TV series, Fill My Tank, for Singapore-based Channel NewsAsia. Lee Davies turned the oil into biodiesel using a converter provided by Singapore Polytechnic, which he delivered to an orphanage in Siem Reap at the end of his trip.
"The trip was really an eco-travel show, mixing the adventure of a travel show with a focus on green technology. If it was just a programme about green technology or biofuels, no one would watch it," the filmmaker, writer and photographer says. His aim was to promote the conversion of waste products into fuel. "I'm not suggesting that biofuels are going to replace traditional fossil-fuel oil, but certainly they will contribute to carbon dioxide mitigation," he says.
It's a process that could offer an alternative to other, more costly and controversial renewable energy sources. Solar and wind power need heavy investment in infrastructure and so-called land-based biofuels - made from sugar, starch and vegetable oils - have drawn a backlash in recent years.
The UN warned in 2009 that despite helping to curb carbon dioxide emissions, the benefits of using crops for fuel could be offset by environmental problems including deforestation, soil erosion, a loss of biodiversity, and higher food prices for poor communities as land for food production became scarcer.
"If you go to Brazil, the US, everybody knows about biodiesel. If you go to Malaysia, where they have so much agricultural produce, where there's palm oil, food crops, tonnes of waste cooking oil, no one really knows about it," Lee Davies says.
The same can be said for Hong Kong, he says, and he hopes to share his experience with the government. "Hong Kong has very little awareness about carbon mitigation. It's all about luxury goods and high-end consumption, but you have a huge air pollution problem, and a lot of that comes from dirty diesel engines."
The government adopted Euro V diesel standards in June last year for vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes. The benefit is a 40 per cent cut in nitrogen oxide emissions over the Euro IV standard, which had been in place since 2006. But there are still 80,000 heavily polluting pre-Euro and Euro I to III commercial diesel vehicles on the roads, the government says.
In January, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying pledged to introduce a HK$10 billion package to purge the roads of dirty trucks and buses by 2019.
"If it's going to take years, we can at least change the diesel stocks so they burn cleaner fuel, and reduce carbon dioxide in the process. You could do that very quickly," Lee Davies says.
Edwin Lau Che-feng, director of general affairs for Friends of the Earth (Hong Kong), says the government should set mandatory targets for a switch to a blend of 5 per cent or 10 per cent biodiesel - called B5 and B10 - to prod owners of polluting vehicles to clean up their act.
"Both [blends] are widely available in Europe for cars and ships because they reduce particulate matter," he says, adding that a big problem in Hong Kong is the lack of a distribution network. "If the government doesn't mandate it, the oil companies will not accommodate it in their service stations because it affects their bottom line."
The government could use tax incentives to make biodiesel an attractive option, he says. "With the bus companies, the government could set terms in their franchise that they either improve the fleet or use cleaner fuels for the same fleet."
There are doubts, however, that the government will take meaningful action.
On Wednesday, the Legislative Council unanimously passed a motion calling for the government to support the local biodiesel industry. The purpose of the motion was to eradicate "gutter oil" - after it was reported late last year that some restaurants in the city were using recycled cooking oil. The use of "gutter oil" is a serious problem, on the mainland, and legislators were keen to know where an estimated 8,000 tonnes of waste cooking oil that is not accounted for in Hong Kong ended up.
Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing told Legco the government was "generally supportive" of the biodiesel industry. He said a pilot scheme by government departments to use B5 would be expanded mid-year. But the scheme is voluntary.
"Basically he said we're already doing enough," says Anthony Dixon, CEO of ASB Biodiesel (Hong Kong).
ASB, one of a handful of biodiesel producers in the city, has been lobbying the government to make blending mandatory. The company is building a biodiesel plant in Tseung Kwan O that is due to start production in September.
Dixon says ASB collects about 20 per cent of the city's used restaurant cooking oil, which should increase shortly to 30 per cent.
"We are talking to an oil company that has a licence to blend and would sell biodiesel to corporate customers - but not on the forecourt. We will be producing enough biodiesel to run all diesel vehicles in Hong Kong on a 10 per cent blend," he says, adding that local vehicles use about one million tonnes of diesel a year. Most of ASB's biodiesel will be exported globally, with the main market being Europe.
On the subject of Lee Davies' road tip, Dixon says there is no technical reason why vehicles can't run on 100 per cent biodiesel. "Many engine manufacturers recommend a blend of not more than 20 per cent biodiesel, but that's because they are being conservative with their warranties."
In Europe, most heavy vehicles run on B5, he says, but that is due to limited supply.
Since biodiesel contains a solvent, vehicles usually need to be maintained more frequently in the first few months of switching from straight diesel to biodiesel, such as a change of air filters. "After that, there won't be any problems," Dixon says.
Lee Davies says that apart from running out of fuel in Malaysia, the only glitch he had with his vehicle was a wiring problem. His converter - which "looks like a big coffee machine" - fitted in the boot. Potassium hydroxide, a biocatalyst, was added, and it took two hours to clean 20 litres. Ten litres of cooking oil produces eight litres of biodiesel and two litres of glycerine, which is often used as a moisturiser in the production of soap and cosmetics.
"Biodiesel is the same as diesel. It gives the same mileage, it burns cleaner, it's a carbon dioxide reduction of up to 80 per cent and in my experience it was more efficient, and it's renewable," Lee Davies says.
The polytechnic's converter was developed for poor rural communities. Since the electricity supply is unstable in the Cambodian countryside, villagers often rely on generators. The kingdom was the least aware of biodiesel among the countries Lee Davies visited, however.
"If people were tuned in to biodiesel, it would back up their generators with a sustainable supply of fuel," he says.
"We delivered this converter to the orphanage so that when they don't have electricity, they can power their generator with biodiesel. In the process, they save about US$1,000 per month in fuel costs."