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PARIS, July 12 (Reuters) - Rapeseed oil, used widely in cooking oil andmargarine because of its low saturated fat content, has made it out of thekitchen and into cars.The oil of the yellow-flowered rapeseed plant does not on its own havethe properties required to be used in motor engines. But when mixed with achemical substance called methanol, it becomes a fuel with propertiessimilar to diesel.Referred to as diester -- a contraction of "diesel" and the rapeseedby-product "ester" -- the fuel has slowly but surely penetrated the Frenchmarket, with most regular gas stations now offering diesel containing upto five percent diester."One (diesel) car out of two uses diester," said Bernard Nicol, generaldirector of Diester Industries (DI), which markets diester on behalf ofFrench oilseeds growers.

DIESTER INSIDEFew 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 thesector) except consumers," he added. Most oil companies that use diesteromit to mention it in French petrol stations, despite its green,politically correct image.Car makers and petroleum companies prize the rapeseed fuel for its highlevel of oxygen and absence of sulphur, which give it a lubricatingcapacity seen as its main advantage.Diester also helps reduce engines' carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, thuscutting harmful greenhouse effects, Nicol said."Diester is the best answer to reduce CO2 emissions," said BeatricePerrier, an engineer at the French car maker PSA Peugeot Citroen, which produces engines that can use up to 30 percent diesterwithout having to be overhauled.Apparently seduced by biofuels' impact on "greenhouse gases", theEuropean Commission said last month that it planned to present proposalslater this year requiring that all oil refineries mix a percentage ofbiofuel with petrol.Another green aspect of diester was spotlighted last year when theFrench oil giant TotalFinaElf used it as a biodegradable solventto clean rocks polluted after a ship spilled oil along France's Atlanticcoast.The company, seeking to repair its image, said diester was best suitedto the task because it was biodegradable, non-toxic and posed no threat towildlife.

NEW HORIZONS FOR OILSEEDS GROWERSDiester, not to be confused with another biofuel called ethanol that isused as an additive to petrol, has also raised the hopes of long-sufferingFrench oilseed farmers."The chance to transform vegetable oil into a biofuel that couldreplace diesel appeared to the oilseed sector as an opportunity not to bemissed," said Pierre Cuypers, president of the French association for thedevelopment of biofuels.The sector has been under a cloud since the EU cut oilseed subsidies aspart of a 1992 farm reform, sparking an overall decline in French oilseedarea.But the reform also had a hidden benefit for diester.Because it required farmers to set aside some of their land as fallowand because this land could be used to grow crops not destined for thefood chain, the area of rapeseed earmarked for use in industry hassteadily been rising."(Although) the area devoted to food rapeseed is decreasing, thepossibility to exploit set-aside fields to non-food ends opened up newhorizons for the oilseeds sector," DI said.

BARRIERS TO GROWTHIf diester has the same benefits as diesel, is environment-friendly andhelps French farmers, why is it not being used more?The answer, according to Nicol, boils down to taxes, supply and complexproduction procedures.Each year, the French government approves an amount of diester to beexempt from a tax on fuel or additives for motor engines.Because diester costs usually between 1.5 and 2 francs per litre moreto produce than diesel, it needs this tax advantage to be competitive,explained Nicol, who said 320,000 tonnes of diester were exempted thisyear."We hope to produce 390,000 tonnes (of diester) in 2002. After that, itwill all depend from the government and the National Assembly'swillingness to develop biofuels," he said.France, which makes its diester almost solely from rapeseed, is now thebiggest producer in the world.

FILL FRANCE WITH RAPESEED FIELDSEven if Nicol wanted to market pure diester in gas stations and therebycompete with the oil companies that are currently his allies -- somethinghe does not want to do -- there would not be enough rapeseed in France.To produce 100 percent diester "we would have to fill the Frenchcountryside with rapeseed fields," he said."Diester is a huge potential market but it is limited by France'sability to increase industrial rapeseed area", said Georges Vermeersch,director of innovations at Sofiproteol, parent company of DiesterIndustries.In Germany 100 percent diester is widely used in diesel engines.

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