Fuel for thought

The diesel engine was intended to run on peanut oil—allowing farmers to grow their own fuel and small craftsmen and artisans to compete with large industry. Cheap petrodiesel and petrol prevented this ideal from becoming a reality. Now, one hundred and ten years later, people around the world are ditching non-renewable petroleum-based fuels for biodiesel, a renewal fuel which has the potential to revolutionise the world we live in.

When Rudolf Diesel invented the engine that bears his name, he intended it to run on peanut oil–allowing farmers to grow their own fuel and small craftsmen and artisans to compete with large industry.

They could benefit from the new mechanical workhorses, while feeding this machinery with the fruit of the soil.

Diesel’s untimely death combined with cheap petrodiesel and gasoline to thwart this ideal.

One hundred and ten years later many people around the world are rediscovering this unique quality of his now ubiquitous diesel engines, brewing up a fuel called biodiesel which not only frees them from reliance on imported petroleum, but also produces a fraction of the pollution and greenhouse gasses emitted by gas and oil.

As it becomes painfully obvious that the cost of fossil fuels–in terms of ecological damage, foreign policy and economic stability–is not always represented at the pump–the rise of biodiesel takes on particular significance.

Some are turning to biodiesel because it can be inexpensive and locally manufactured, others are attracted to this fuel’s ability to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in existing vehicles. Still others find plant-based biodiesel a way to free themselves from reliance on fossil fuels.

In short, it is a fuel with the potential to answer many concerns regarding energy independence and sustainability.

Making the Big Time
Biodiesel is a fuel derived from plants. It runs in conventional diesel engines without the need for any modification and it is biodegradable, nontoxic and greatly reduces most of the pollution associated with petroleum-based fuel.

Biodiesel is made by mixing lye, ethanol (an alcohol made from fermented plant materials) and vegetable oil or animal fat.
Until recently few people knew that they could run their diesel vehicles on a mixture of cooking oil, ethanol and lye–fuel they could brew in their own garages.

However, when several drivers were caught buying cooking oil from the supermarket and homebrewing biodiesel to avoid road taxes in Wales, word quickly spread–much to the chagrin of the emerging biodiesel industry.

“These kind of articles–where people characterize it as this goofy little hippie thing, people throwing vegetable oil into fuel tanks–just make fun of and trivialize what we have worked hard to develop as a commercial industry,” The National Biodiesel Board’s director Joe Jobe told the New York Times. “When people are out there doing that and they have engine problems, the public assumes that biodiesel causes problems–they don’t know it was homemade fuel.”

Ironically, the supermarket chain where that tax-dodgers bought their cooking oil has decided to covert its own fleet over to biodiesel–legally of course. The chain will run its delivery vehicles on recovered cooking oil from its fryers–turning a disposal headache into a money saver. Biodiesel is still cheaper in the UK than diesel–even when all taxes are paid.

Biodiesel is already the fastest growing alternative fuel in the US–and is landing big institutional customers. The US Armed forces, Postal Service and dozens of Public Transit and municipal fleets all over the country have turned to B20 to clean up air pollution problems and reduce CO2 emissions.

Such fleet buyers are increasing demand–the postal service alone used half a million gallons of the fuel last year.

Biodiesel reduces unhealthy emissions
Diesel made from crude oil (petrodiesel) is widely used in trucks, buses, marine engines and construction equipment because diesel engines are fuel efficient, powerful and durable–lasting up to a million miles. A diesel engine can be up to 40% more efficient than a comparable petrol-powered engine.

While diesel engines produce less of the greenhouse gas CO2 than petrol, they produce air pollution in the form of a sooty exhaust and nitrogen oxides.

The particulate matter released by diesel engines has recently been categorized by the Environmental Protection Agency as contributing to lung cancer and respiratory diseases. However biodiesel advocates suggest that their fuel can also reduce unhealthy emissions without having to retrofit the engines.

“Many in the industry that use and manufacture diesel engines say the costs to adapt them to use cleaner burning fuel will be horrendous,” Harvey Joe Sanner, director of the Soybean Producers of America recently told AgWeb. “We think the science is sufficient to prove that goals could be met with increased use of biodiesel, made from a blend of soy oil and diesel fuel.”

That’s because biodiesel emits no sulfate particulates, and naturally produces fewer carbon particulate emissions. Biodiesel can reduce the cancer-causing emissions of diesel engines by up to 90 percent. On the other hand biodiesel does produce slightly more (2 percent) nitrogen oxide.

Biodiesel contains no petrochemicals–it is 100% renewable and burns much cleaner (93% less unburned hydrocarbons, 50% less carbon monoxide, 30% less particulate matter and no sulfates). Advocates say it also improves performance.

“Two immediate effects were apparent when we started running the trucks on biodiesel,” wrote the Berkeley Ecology Center’s Williamson trucks on biodiesel. “First, there was a decrease in engine vibration. Second, instead of spewing a sooty cloud, the tailpipe ran clean and emitted an aroma of French fries.”

A Carbon Neutral Fuel?
Pure biodiesel has a number of elegant features to it. Foremost is that it doesn’t increase the level of carbon in the atmosphere in modern times. Carbon emissions from biodiesel come from plants that absorbed that carbon from the atmosphere. This closes the carbon cycle instead of simply digging fossil fuels out of the ground and releasing their sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. CO2 in the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas, blamed for global warming.

“The beauty of biodiesel, in my opinion, is that it comes from plants,” Kumar Ploche a biodiesel user from Ukiah, California says. “It’s part of an active cycle.”

Living off the Fat of the Land
Biodiesel from waste cooking oil is both a renewable resource and a recycled product. Tests have shown identical performance and emissions between biodiesel from used cooking oil and biodiesel from virgin vegetable oils.

One fast-food restaurant can produce more than 180 litres of waste oil a day. It would take just one fifth of the waste cooking oil produced in New York City to run its entire transit system, according to the New York Times.
In fact with some modifications–fuel heaters and filters–waste cooking oil could be used directly without refining.

The fact that US cities are tapping restaurant cooking oil while Midwestern farmers are running their tractors on soybeans highlights another advantage of biodiesel–it can be localized.

Because biodiesel can be derived from many different crops and plants as well as restaurant waste, this is a fuel that can be created based on locally available resources in any given region. This promotes local sustainability while reducing the need to import fuels–thus contributing to local energy independence and eliminating energy wasted in fuel transportation. It creates new markets for domestic agriculture production that may be suffering due to globalized competition.

India–which must import 70% of its fuel oil–is investing in biodiesel as a way of stabilizing energy prices. It plans to use native plants such as jetropha, mahua and karanja to produce the fuel–even growing the crops along railroad right of ways.
Biodiesel production is also scaleable–meaning it can be brewed up in a backyard, on a farm or in a small village as well as mass-produced in large refineries. This too provides an opportunity for localized energy economies, which are by their nature more efficient.

Clean Burning, Great Smelling
While getting stuck in traffic behind a diesel truck might make you sick, getting stuck behind a truck burning biodiesel is more likely to make you hungry. The smell has been described as reminding people of popcorn, donuts, fried chicken and French fries.

Yet the smell is a telltale sign of one of biodiesel’s main advantage–it is far less polluting than diesel. In fact, pure biodiesel meets all the EPA antipollution requirements through 2007. It contains no sulphur–the additive to diesel which causes smog and health problems and clogs catalysts.

Moreover, particulate emissions–the other problem with standard diesel–are also reduced by 40% with biodiesel.

As if that wasn’t enough, biodiesel is biodegradable, nontoxic–advocates sometimes show off by drinking a sip or two–and safer to handle and transport because it is less volatile than gas or diesel oil.

Byproducts and unsolved problems
Making biodiesel yields one significant byproduct–glycerin–an ingredient in many toiletries and foods.

However, glycerin is already a cheap and plentiful byproduct of soapmaking. If biodiesel makers can find new uses of markets for this byproduct, the cost of biodiesel production could be further reduced, but right now producers are still struggling to find ready markets.

Some are troubled by the fact that corporate agribusines is throwing so much of its weight behind increasing biodiesel use and are concerned that genetically modified crops will be used.

Thankfully, however, biodiesel is a much more difficult product to monopolize than an oil well–as the homebrewing drivers in Wales demonstrated–and some independent producers are shunning genetically modified crops and pesticides.

Moreover, while most biodiesel is derived from soybeans, that does not have to be the case. More than three dozen plants–from cashews to coffee–can be used to make fuel oil.

All told, biodiesel cannot yet displace current petroleum consumption. Global capacity for vegetable oil is only about 62 million tons per year compared global petroleum consumption of more than 3,300 million tons.

Yet no one is suggesting that every car should run on biodiesel, or that it is a long term substitute for more efficient engines, or zero emission vehicles when they become practical. Biodiesel is a near-term solution that fits current infrastructures–of highways, distribution networks, and vehicle fleets.

It cleans up–and runs well in–the millions of diesel vehicles already on the roads and rails and waterways and can be stored in the tanks of your local petrol station.

It makes no sense to replace one energy monoculture–oil–with another. So it is illogical to try to envision biodiesel consumption and production on a scale similar to that of petrodiesel.

Biodiesel is a step toward energy diversification a waypoint, not an endpoint on the road to sustainable energy.

That said, it offers us important bench marks–local, renewable, recycled, nontoxic, and biodegradable–that we would do well to follow when addressing planning our future energy needs.