Exploring Biodiesel

Environmentally Friendly and Made in the U.S.A.


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    In an effort to curb conventional diesel emissions, municipal fleets and consumers alike are turning to homegrown biodiesel fuel. | March 18, 2010

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Imagine this: You pull up behind a city bus at a traffic light in your town. As you wait for the light to change, you recognize the familiar sound of a diesel engine and worry that your vehicle is about to be enveloped in a cloud as black smoke is belched from the tailpipe. You can do nothing but hold your breath and wait for the inevitable. When the bus begins to pull away, you are pleasantly surprised that there is no black cloud of exhaust. Then you breathe. You smell the distinct odor of something cooking, yet there are no restaurants in sight. You realize the odor is coming from the bus ahead of you.

No, you're not in the middle of a science-fiction movie. You could be in a number of cities and towns virtually anywhere in the U.S. where biodiesel is being used as an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based diesel fuel in city buses, fire and rescue vehicles, delivery trucks and even passenger vehicles — in short, any vehicle powered by a diesel engine.

Biodiesel is being used in both public and private fleet vehicles because it allows those fleets to be more environmentally friendly and offers a reduction in some emissions without requiring any modifications to the vehicle. And now that it is more readily available in retail locations, an increasing number of individuals who own diesel-powered vehicles are using it, too.

Ted Grozier of Ann Arbor, Mich., has been using biodiesel in his 2002 Volkswagen Golf TDI for over two years. "I read about it on the TDI Club Web site and then did some of my own research," he said. "My car doesn't run any different [on biodiesel] and it feels good to know that it's better for the environment."

What Is Biodiesel?

Biodiesel is an alternative fuel that is biodegradable, burns cleanly and is made from a renewable resource. In the United States, biodiesel is made primarily from soybean oil and secondarily from a product called yellow grease, which is essentially used restaurant cooking oil. It can also be made from tallow, a hard fat that comes from cattle or sheep, which is frequently used to make soap and other products.

In Europe, where there has been a thriving biodiesel industry for about 20 years, the fuel is made from rapeseed oil, a plant that is in the mustard and turnip families. The European variety of rapeseed is not grown in the U.S. because of the climate it needs to thrive, but the canola variety of the plant is grown in some parts of the country. All the same, when it comes to producing biodiesel fuel, soybean crops called feedstock are the best source of biodiesel in the United States.

Small Market, Big Growth

Because the United States uses only 55 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually, the diesel market is relatively small, but important nonetheless. Today's diesel engines provide 20- to 40-percent better fuel economy and offer more torque at lower rpm compared to their gasoline counterparts. Among passenger vehicles, diesel-powered vehicles represented just 3.4 percent of the vehicle sales in the United States in 2003, according to research firm R.L. Polk.

The diesel engine is the most efficient of all the types of internal-combustion engines, meaning that it extracts more mechanical energy from its fuel than other types of internal-combustion engines. It does this by compressing air to a high pressure and then injecting small amounts of fuel into the combustion chamber. This highly compressed air creates high temperatures, which in turn causes the diesel fuel to burn without the spark plug that is a key component in a gasoline engine. It is the increased energy that gives diesel-powered vehicles their edge in fuel economy.

As a result of the increased efficiency, combined with new diesel fuel standards set to take effect in 2006, automakers are bringing more diesel-powered vehicles to the United States market. Despite the memories of rattling engines, tailpipes belching black smoke and vehicles that were hard to start on a cold morning, the federal government is welcoming these technologically advanced diesel vehicles into the market — provided they can meet the current emissions standards as well as the more stringent standards that begin to take effect in 2006.

Biodiesel plays a role in this governmental shuffle for several reasons. Because it is made from products farmed here in the U.S., it is entirely American-made and is therefore a contributing factor in decreasing our dependence on foreign oil. It has the potential to be more emissions-friendly with some pollutants than petroleum-based diesels. In addition, its unique properties may also be able to help resolve some of the problems that will arise when diesel fuel is required to meet the new standards.

Even without the new emissions standards, biodiesel is playing a small, but significant role today. According to the National Biodiesel Board, the industry's trade association, 25 million gallons of biodiesel were produced and sold in the U.S. in 2003. While that represents less than one percent of the diesel fuel used, it still shows a huge jump in interest when you consider that just five years prior, in 1999, only 500,000 gallons of biodiesel were produced and sold in the U.S. That's a 5,000-percent increase. "The Department of Energy calls biodiesel the fastest growing alternative fuel in the nation, and we expect that trend to continue," said Joe Jobe, executive director of the National Biodiesel Board.

But because biodiesel is most commonly blended with petroleum diesel, the 25 million gallons of pure biodiesel actually stretches much further. Biodiesel blends are designated with the percentage of biodiesel that is mixed with the petroleum diesel. For example, B5, would be 5 percent biodiesel and 95 percent petroleum diesel. Biodiesel can be blended with petroleum diesel at any ratio, but the most common blends are B20, B2 and, bringing up a very distant third place, B100 which is 100-percent biodiesel. As a result, the National Biodiesel Board estimates that there were at least 150 million gallons of biodiesel-blended fuel used in 2003. That's still only a small amount of the total diesel fuel used, but it's a far more significant sum.

Who's Using It and Why

Biodiesel can be used in any equipment with a diesel engine without making any modifications to the engine. As a result, it's seen in farm tractors, construction equipment, manufacturing machinery and even boats. When it comes to diesel-powered automobiles, it is hugely popular with both public fleets, such as city vehicles, and in private fleets, such as with companies that use trucks to make deliveries.

Gary Parker, a Kansas farmer who has used B2 biodiesel in all of his farm equipment for years, was instrumental in getting the city of Breckenridge, Colo., to use B20 biodiesel in its city fleet. "My brother and I own a house there and I was reading in the local paper that the town was considering using alternative fuels," said Parker. "So I contacted the councilman who was in charge of the initiative and told him what I knew about biodiesel." What Parker knew about biodiesel was substantial. About 300 of his 1,300 acres of farmland have soybeans on them, and Parker served on the United Soybean Board for nine years. The town was intrigued by the concept of using biodiesel, and Parker used his resources to organize the Rocky Mountain Biodiesel Symposium in August 2002 where representatives from Breckenridge and neighboring communities came to learn more about biodiesel. The town began testing some vehicles with biodiesel and now fuels its vehicle fleet, including its buses, maintenance equipment, dump trucks, snow plows and even fire trucks with B20 biodiesel. "It's great to see the city being concerned about the environment," Parker said. "I hope it's the start of many more Americans using American-made renewable fuels."

Breckenridge, Colo., however, is far from the only U.S. town to go down the biodiesel road. In fact, over 250 major fleets use biodiesel, including all four branches of the United States military, NASA, Yellowstone National Park, many state transportation departments and many city fleets. There are also efforts at the state level to require the use of biodiesel blends for all diesel-powered vehicles. Minnesota is the first state to come on-line with such a ruling. B2 biodiesel will replace petroleum diesel statewide beginning in June 2005, and some cities within the state may even require the B5 blend to be used.

On an individual level, most folks are using biodiesel because of a concern for the environment. Country music legend Willie Nelson powers his new 2005 Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI with B100 biodiesel, and his wife Annie has used B100 in her Volkswagen Jetta TDI wagon for over a year. "I am absolutely a fan of biodiesel," Nelson said. "I use it in my car because I'm a firm believer in using renewable fuels that are better for our environment. We should all be doing our part to reduce our reliance on foreign oil and contribute to our own economy. On top of all that, biodiesel use helps our nation's family farmers, while preserving the land for future generations."

Grozier, who learned about biodiesel from TDI Club, said his decision to use B20 biodiesel exclusively in his Volkswagen Golf TDI was for environmental reasons. "At the moment, it's the best option for a biomass-derived fuel that can be used in conventional automobiles without alteration," he said.

Better for the Environment — Sort of

There are numerous environmental benefits to using biodiesel, even in a blended form, over petroleum diesel fuel, although some of the environmental benefits are dependent on how the fuel is produced. It is both non-toxic and biodegradable. It is nearly free of sulfur and carcinogenic benzene — two of the components of petroleum diesel that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state emissions boards have issued regulations on because of environmental and health concerns.

Using a biodiesel blend of B20 has shown to significantly improve some emissions when compared to using straight petroleum biodiesel, according to studies from both the EPA and the National Biodiesel Board. A National Biodiesel Board study showed a 14-percent reduction in unburned hydrocarbons, a nine-percent drop in carbon monoxide and an eight-percent decrease in particulate matter. EPA research shows an even greater drop in emissions when soybean-based B20 biodiesel is used in heavy-duty highway vehicles — a 21-percent drop in unburned hydrocarbons, an 11-percent decline in carbon monoxide and a 10-percent decrease in particulate matter.

While these results are encouraging, many of today's new diesel-powered passenger vehicles already have significantly reduced unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide thanks to engine improvements. Particulate matter emissions will be reduced beginning in 2006, thanks to the new emissions standards that require the availability of low-sulfur diesel and mandate that automakers add particulate matter traps to their vehicles.

One major concern is that a number of biodiesel studies shows an increase in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. NOx is the chief contributor to ozone (better known as smog), so the use of biodiesel in areas with smog problems is a concern. The increase in NOx levels is directly correlated to the percentage of biodiesel used, so smog-prone areas may opt to use lower blends of biodiesel. Studies with B20 biodiesel blends show increases in NOx emissions of 0 to 4 percent. Certain automotive components, including catalytic converters, also help to reduce NOx levels, so it's possible that some vehicles that would run on higher levels of biodiesel (such as heavy-duty trucks) might need additional equipment installed to help with this environmental issue.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

One of the most challenging issues with biodiesel as a fuel source is the quality of the fuel itself. While fuel standards for biodiesel have now been created, they are not nearly as stringent as those the U.S. has for gasoline and even for petroleum diesel, which is not heavily regulated. The lack of consistent quality among all producers is an issue that has everyone — the biodiesel industry, automakers, engine suppliers and consumers — concerned.

When Grozier made the decision to use B20 biodiesel in his Volkswagen, he researched the issues associated with the fuel and then went to talk with the owner of the Amoco station in Manchester, Mich., where he planned to buy his fuel. "I wanted to make sure he knew how to properly store it and to learn how he blends it," explained Grozier. It turns out that the station, owned by Wacker Oil, purchases B100, pure biodiesel, from a nearby producer, which creates it using soybean oil. The B100 is then blended at the station with Amoco Premier, a diesel fuel designed for better performance. As a result, "I feel confident I'm getting high-quality B20," said Grozier, who pays about 10 cents more per gallon of the fuel than he would if he purchased petroleum biodiesel at the same station. Fueling stations need to treat biodiesel a bit differently than other fuels. Because it is made with vegetable-based products, the temperature it is stored at is more critical than with petroleum diesel. If it sits in a warm storage tank for too long, it can grow mold and if it is stored at too cold of a temperature, it will thicken and could be difficult to dispense. These problems primarily occur if the biodiesel is not used quickly enough, so fuel stations can significantly reduce these issues by simply buying only enough biodiesel as their market demands.

While these problems could also happen once the biodiesel has been pumped into a vehicle, it is more critical that owners watch for signs that fuel filters and systems are clogging, particularly when biodiesel is first used. Biodiesel acts as a lubricant, which means that it can loosen deposits that are stuck in fuel lines and in the fuel tank, which in turn could clog fuel filters, injectors or other parts of the fuel system. Experts indicate that this is a greater issue with older diesel vehicles (because the higher mileage generally means greater deposits) and with the newest technology for fuel injection, such as Mercedes-Benz's new compressed direct injection diesel engines, where the pressure of the fuel being forced through the injectors is much greater than in the older-style diesel engines.

Since these issues relate only to pure biodiesel, not blends, one could make the assumption that the so-called risks of using biodiesel would be significantly less and perhaps even insignificant with low biodiesel blends. This, however, is not entirely true, because the disadvantages also depend largely on the quality of the biodiesel produced. As a result, the World-Wide Fuel Charter, a list of fuel requirements endorsed by auto and engine manufacturers, only recommends the use of biodiesel blends of up to 5 percent (B5) in the United States. Some automakers, including Ford, General Motors and the Chrysler Group, also take this stance. Others, including Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz do not recommend the use of any biodiesel and note that owners who use biodiesel may not be covered by their warranty if the problem is deemed the result of using biodiesel. "Our current diesel models run very well with good-quality biodiesel, but the energy industry [in the U.S.] still needs to adopt a consistent standard for biodiesel fuel content and quality before we can promote its use in our diesel engines," said Geno Effler, spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz USA.

The National Biodiesel Board has been working hard with regulators, auto and engine manufacturers and the biodiesel industry to create standards that will address the quality concerns. There is now a full national standard for biodiesel and, in June 2004, producer Peter Cremer North America became the first company to be fully compliant with the new standard. The company's Cincinnati plant produced 5.5 million gallons of pure soy-based biodiesel for U.S. consumption in 2003 and has the capacity to produce over 25 million gallons, should market demand increase. "Producing more all depends on Washington and what happens with the Energy Bill," said Mack Findley, sales manager for Peter Cremer North America, referring to the bill which would give a tax credit that would effectively subsidize the cost of biodiesel.

Is It Safe For My Car?

With all these cautionary statements by automakers, many are left wondering if biodiesel is safe to run in their vehicles. The overall conclusion is that a biodiesel blend up to B20 generally will not cause any harm to a diesel engine, so long as good quality fuel is being used. While no automaker recommends the use of biodiesel in quantities higher than B5 in the U.S., all have done research on the use of biodiesel blends up to B20 and feel confident in its performance so long as the fuel is of high quality. "Quality standards are the main concern for any U.S. (petroleum) diesel fuel; this is an even bigger concern for biodiesel. We do think there is potential for biodiesel blends once the quality standards are improved even further," said Tony Fouladpour, spokesperson for Volkswagen of America.

Both General Motors and the Chrysler Group are monitoring the effects of biodiesel in real-world fleet use. The fleet Chrysler is monitoring has put over 150,000 miles on its vehicles over the last five years using B20. General Motors is monitoring two fleets with a total of 238 vehicles that have traveled a combined total of 5 million miles using B20. None of the fleets have experienced any engine problems with the fuel. "At this point, we feel confident that B5 can be used without any adverse effects. The results we've seen from B20 use are very encouraging, but the key is to make sure the fuel quality is high," said Loren Beard, senior manager of energy programs in Environmental Energy Planning at the Chrysler Group.

Where opinions deviate greatly is with biodiesel blends that are higher than 20 percent or with pure biodiesel. Many feel that even B100 that has been produced by a reputable manufacturer should not be used in a vehicle engine and would likely result in engine damage. Others feel that it may be possible to use B100 without any adverse effects so long as the quality standards are high.

There does, however, seem to be a consensus that purchasing used restaurant cooking oil locally and either making your own biodiesel at home or via an aftermarket system that is installed in your vehicle, is not a good idea. Despite the fact that there are a number of companies selling these aftermarket systems and that instructions on how to make your own biodiesel at home are prevalent on the Internet, experts all agreed that these homegrown systems are likely to cause more harm than good. "There is nothing wrong with making biodiesel from used oil if it is run through the proper refining process, but doing it in your garage scares the heck out of me," said Jack Blanchard, assistant chief engineer for diesel at General Motors.

Dick Baker, corporate technical specialist for Ford's Advanced Diesel Systems group, acknowledges that there are a number of individuals who are taking the make-it-yourself approach and seem to be having positive results. He said, "A diesel engine will burn lots of types of oils and is quite tolerant of these products in the short term. The long-term effects, however, are another story."

Fuel of the Future?

The use of biodiesel has already increased more than 50 times over in the last five years and, thanks to several factors, it looks like it will continue to rise. It is already easier for individuals to purchase biodiesel at retail locations, with stations prevalent in the Midwest, Northeast, Southwest and Northwest. Some of the biodiesel pumps are located at conventional gas stations, while others are located at marinas and at agricultural locations. A list of retail locations can be found at the National Biodiesel Board's Web site, www.biodiesel.org. Blue Sun Biodiesel is focusing on increasing the number of retail locations throughout the U.S. It has 15 retail locations currently in Colorado and New Mexico and has plans to open 50 retail locations by the end of 2004 in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Currently, it sells only B20 at its pumps.

One of the limiting factors to biodiesel use is its cost, which is about one cent per gallon more expensive than petroleum diesel for every percent added to the blend, meaning, for example, that B5 is on average five cents more per gallon than petroleum diesel. Biodiesel demand will continue to rise if the costs decline, which is a likely scenario thanks to it being included in several bills, notably the recent Energy Bill, that have bipartisan support. "The biggest factor in future production is whether biodiesel gets a federal tax incentive that is currently a part of three prominent bills in Washington. If it passes, and we believe it will, it will significantly close the cost difference between biodiesel blends and regular diesel," says the National Biodiesel Board's Jobe.The new low-sulfur diesel fuel standards that go into effect in 2006 may also play a role in increased use of biodiesel. It may be used in low percentages in all diesel fuel or as a fuel additive to increase the lubricity of petroleum diesel. In one scenario, the nation could follow Minnesota's decision to use B2 biodiesel in place of pure petroleum diesel. Gardner, a Kansas-based West Central Cooperative, which produces 12 to 15 million gallons of pure biodiesel annually, is partnering with another firm to use its manufacturing technology to create turnkey biodiesel plants. "We are expecting biodiesel to continue to grow in its importance to our business and the federal tax credits will only push it further," said Gary Haer, soy product sales manager.

While no one knows exactly what the future holds for biodiesel, we are likely to see it evolve over the next 10 years. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Department of Energy's premier laboratory for renewable energy research and development, estimates that biodiesel could one day replace 10 percent of the petroleum diesel we use today — an amount that the biodiesel advocates find encouraging. Said Jobe, "That may not seem like a lot, but 10 percent of the on-road diesel fuel this country uses would be 380 million gallons a year."

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