Mr. Green Car: Biodiesel—nature’s fuel

By Allen Penticoff

Free-lance Writer

Since I’ve begun to write this column, I’ve frequently discussed the sources of our transportation energy and their relationship with the environment—from electricity and compressed natural gas, to ethanol and waste vegetable oil. In this column, we’ll take a look at the one I’ve put off the longest—biodiesel.

Musicians like Willie Nelson are touring the country on their biodiesel-fueled buses to reduce their impact on global warming. Willie even had his own brand of fuel—BioWillie, which was sold for several years. Willie was once quoted as saying: “There is really no need going around starting wars over oil. We have it here at home. We have the necessary product, the farmers can grow it.” Well, that’s one aspect of using bio fuels.

The “bio” in biodiesel can be from animal fats or vegetable oils, such as soybean oil. The U.S. produces 1 billion gallons of waste fryer oil per year. Although this “free” source is available, 60 to 80 percent of biodiesel comes directly from soybeans in the United States. When soy oil prices rise, biodiesel producers rely more on waste oil sources. A good article about soybeans’ role in current biodiesel production can be found at

I don’t have to go to Texas to get Willie’s biodiesel. I can roll down the hill to my local gas station here in New Milford. They have one diesel pump, and it has a biodiesel blend of 5 to 20 percent (B5-B20, the B# is the percentage of biodiesel). Since my ’81 VW Rabbit diesel can run on waste vegetable oil, I like to put biodiesel in the regular diesel tank, too. The state of Illinois maintains maps of locations where alternative fuels such as E85 ethanol and biodiesel are available online at (their list does not seem to be comprehensive).

Biodiesel is far different than the waste or straight vegetable oil that my VW runs on. Vegetable oil—waste or neat, or animal fat—is chemically modified with methanol in a process called “transesterification” to remove glycols. This turns the vegetable oil into a fuel that is very nearly the same as petroleum-based diesel and leaves behind glycol, a chemical used in soap and other products. Presently, most of the production of biodiesel is sold as a blend, as my local gas station has, to enhance the properties of regular diesel and reduce the demands on importing oil, rather than sell it in its straight B100 form, as they do in some European countries. The process of making biodiesel is, however, something you can do at home if you are so inclined, and there are books available about the subject.

Despite being able to make your own biodiesel, I’ve found most people who are gathering up waste vegetable oil are using it directly as I do, instead of dealing with the biodiesel transesterification processing. Thus, the process of making biodiesel is falling on emerging entrepreneurs, such as BioVantage in a nearby Belvidere, Ill., industrial park, which has suppliers that collect the used fryer oil and bring it to them for processing. Their product is then taken to fuel distribution centers, where it is blended with diesel.

In operation, blends of biodiesel up to B20 can run in any vehicle with a diesel engine without modification. The vehicle operating on B20 will experience no detectable difference in power or fuel consumption. It will, however, be treated to better “lubricity,” which reduces engine wear and may run somewhat smoother. This fuel has an ATSM specification. All manufacturers say B5 will not void their warranties and most have said B20 is an acceptable fuel as well. These fuels have no worse cold weather characteristics than does ordinary diesel.

As for the environment and sustainability: for every blended gallon of biodiesel produced, the carbon cycle of the fuel is vastly reduced. The energy ratio of B100 is the highest of any alternative fuel presently available, even with using raw crops to produce the oil. So little energy is needed to process it into usable oil that it remains very favorable, returning 3.5 units of energy for every one needed to create it.

It is claimed that when using soybeans (not the best plant for producing oil, but one easily grown on our vast Midwestern fields), the oil that is extracted is not in competition with the protein-rich meal (the reason soybeans are grown in the first place). Rather, the oil is considered a by-product. The National Biodiesel Board states on their Web site ( “From 2004 to 2008, when U.S. biodiesel production climbed from 25 million to 700 million gallons, soybean acres here stayed virtually the same, and soybean acres in Brazil decreased. There are surplus stocks of U.S. fats and oils sufficient to meet near and medium term biodiesel target volumes.” My research indicates biodiesel production, having met current demand, is running at 35 percent of capacity.

More exciting for me is the idea of more engines operating on B100. With very positive results from experiments in obtaining oil from algae, we may one day have algae farms anywhere there is ANY sunlight—rooftops, farms or back yards. It could quite conceivably be the fuel of our future, and it will be a very clean fuel, for as with any source that has “grown,” taking in CO2 and releasing oxygen, then releasing the CO2 again during combustion, we have a closed “carbon neutral” loop. B100 contains virtually no sulfur, and thus engines operating on it do not release the pollutant sulfur oxide that is responsible for acid rain. Nearly all other air pollutants are significantly reduced by use of biodiesel as well, even in blended fuels.

Meanwhile, if you have a vehicle that has a diesel engine, consider seeking out biodiesel and regularly using it. It will be a small easy step to take in reducing your carbon footprint.

From the December 2-8, 2009 issue

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