The Bio-Bug, Volkswagen's great use of waste

The new eco-friendly Volkswagen Beetle runs on methane gas and drives like a dream. It smells OK too.

The Bio-Bug car runs on methane gas, generated during the sewage treatment process, stored in canisters in the boot. It reportedly has a top speed of 180kph.
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The Bio-Bug looks like a normal car, starts like a normal car and even drives like a normal car. The only difference is that it is powered by an altogether novel source... human waste. It runs on methane gas generated from the sewage treatment process. The gas is created through anaerobic digestion where naturally occurring bugs starved of oxygen break down sewage to produce methane - a process that remarkably dates back nearly 100 years.

That gas is then cleaned up through a process of "biogas upgrading" where carbon dioxide is removed to improve its efficiency. That gas, which is 99.9 per cent methane, is then fed into two storage tanks in the boot of the car- each akin to a scuba-diving tank - and that powers the Bio-Bug much like liquified petroleum gas (LPG) does. Before taking to the wheel of the car, a two-litre VW Beetle, there are two very clear preconceptions as I ponder pulling out of the sewage treatment works of GENeco, owned by Malaysian firm YTL Corporation which is making forays into the Middle East, on the outskirts of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

The first is that a car powered, in essence, by sewage will prove incredibly smelly and that secondly the car will not enjoy the same performance level as its petrol-powered counterpart. Both are completely wide of the mark. The man behind the creation, Mohammed Saddiq, the general manager of GENeco who first proposed the idea for the Bio-Bug six months ago, admits both misconceptions were expressed by the two previous company outsiders that have been allowed to drive it.

Saddiq explained: "There's this idea that methane smells but that's not true. It has an odour added to it so that it can be detected but in itself it is completely odourless." Inside, the car looks exactly like a normal VW Beetle. The car does not entirely do justice to the novel concept as it is naturally heavy and its acceleration is far from impressive. But that has nothing to do with the biogas canisters in its boot but merely the fact that VW's Beetle is not a particularly great drive.

The only difference from the regular Beetle on the inside is a small black button the size of a cigarette lighter with four green lights on it. If the car is full of methane, then all the lights are on. We begin our drive with just one light on, which I'm told is enough to take us around a series of country roads to test out its driveability over the course of an hour. The truth is that I did not entirely know what to expect of the Bio-Bug but one thing is sure, I expected it to give a diminished performance. The simple fact is that it didn't and, were it not for the GENeco name emblazoned across it, you would have no idea it was any different to a petrol-powered VW Beetle.

It is equally at ease travelling at 50kph in a residential area as it is of speeds of up to the 120kph mark on the motorways. The suggestion is that it boasts a top speed of 180kph although that has yet to be officially tested. There's not even a hint of a change in the handling if the gas runs out and the car reverts to its back-up unleaded petrol. In fact, the only difference is that the petrol gauge on the dashboard kicks in.

If there is one complaint that can be levelled at it, it is what happens when the methane gas begins to run out. The final light starts flashing on the black button just above the gear stick and a constant beeping sound starts up. This goes on for at least 15 more kilometres of the drive and, if truth be told, having my screaming two-year-old in the back of the car is marginally less tortuous on the roads.

But that aside, the Bio-Bug is an impressive creation. For starters, it is easy to use and also reasonably cost effective. Much like an LPG car, it costs about £1,500 (Dh8,500) to convert and has two inlets for the gas - one under the bonnet and one at the back of the car. And unlike the slow process of an electric car plug-in, recharging it takes a matter of minutes. The one drawback is that, as it stands, the only place it can be replenished is at one of GENeco's 12 sewage treatment works.

That in itself is not a problem. The company's sole aim with a six-month trial is to test how good the performance is and what sort of impact it will have on its engine. Should it work, the plan is to roll it out on all its fleet of vehicles - around the 350 mark. "I'm confident we'll use this with our fleet of vehicles," said Saddiq. "It's a clean fuel and there's no reason why it shouldn't work as long as we're sensible. It's really no different to any other LPG solution."

GENeco's base is an impressive place - aside from the obvious smell as the sewage of one million people is pumped into its treatment works daily. It is solely powered by bio-gas - and the plant uses the power equivalent of 7,000 homes per year - and has 10 per cent of its gas output left after that, which is currently exported to the National Grid or used to power the Bio-Bug. The Bio-Bug itself could be powered for an average of 10,000 miles in a year by the human waste of 70 homes and emits three tonnes of carbon dioxide in an average year compared to a conventional vehicle's tally of 3.5 tonnes.

Where the Bio-Bug stands out is that the carbon dioxide emitted by the vehicle would have been released into the atmosphere anyway in the form of methane gas, which makes it carbon neutral. There are plans afoot at GENeco to also use recycled food waste collected by local authorities to similarly create even more bio-gas. The biggest obstacle for them to overcome initially in the whole process was getting the methane clean enough for it to be efficiently and safely used in the car.

In the end, they found the answer just a few miles down the road with the Greenfuel Company. After that, GENeco got children from the area to help come up with ideas for the car, which included the use of a Beetle as the guinea pig car. "It was local kids that came up with the idea of tying in a Beetle with the idea of the bugs breaking down the sewage," added Saddiq. The Bio-Bug is very much in its infancy but Saddiq is hopeful it may yet have wider reaching implications than merely helping GENeco's fleet of vehicles.

"This is of national importance, of global importance," he said. "Hopefully car manufacturers can see this as a potential way of dealing with their responsibilities, and we're open to sharing our ideas with anyone that's interested." The Bio-Bug is surprisingly efficient. It can last up to 250 miles on its two canisters of methane. The one drawback of those canisters is there is not a great deal of boot space in the Beetle.

And the car has become something of a minor celebrity not only in the motoring world but also in Bristol and the surrounding areas during its brief time to date on the roads. Saddiq explained: "I've not even driven it yet as the staff fight over trying to take it home, as all their kids love it. We even got approached by a supermarket to use it for a fundraising day. And people who've driven it say they get a lot of waves from kids as they go past."

Understandably, driving a car with GENeco's logo on it and bugs littered all over it certainly turns a few heads in and around Bristol. And if they knew what was powering it, it might just do more than turn a few heads.