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The Truth About Biodiesel

Green Energy Is Approaching Critical Mass

Jason Thompson
Jul 1, 2010
If you thought only environmentalists and small-scale garage producers were interested in biodiesel-you're in for a shock. Every day brings news of upcoming developments from the bio industry. Major governments, companies, and universities are positioning themselves on the swelling green wave. But is this green wave for real? And if so, what's in this wave?
Photo 2/4   |   bidodiesel Industry Facts green Energy
What Does It Mean To Be Green?
Energy is the first thing that comes to mind when people think about bio-based oil, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. Medicines, clothing, paints, plastics, cosmetics, packaging materials, chemicals-basically everything that's made today from petroleum is slowly making the switch back to bio-based materials. We say back because, before 1930, the world was based on a bio-economy. Henry Ford believed ethanol was a better fuel than gasoline, but the prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933 basically snuffed out the biofuel industry. Ford even made a car with plastic panels produced from soybean oil. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both grew hemp, which was used for many different industrial purposes. Could we be experiencing a classic example of history repeating itself? Sort of, but the future of bio will be totally different than anything we've ever seen.
Advancements in biochemistry, agriculture, and nanotechnology are combining to accelerate the potential helpfulness of bio-based materials. Still, old-fashioned Mother Nature is no slouch, and plants and bacteria such as jatropha, castor bean, E. coli, hemp, algae, and camelina grown on marginal lands, brackish waters, or in factories have the potential to make up a good portion of our energy, food, and other material needs-the following is just a splash from the green wave.
Biodiesel And You
In the next one to five years, biodiesel, and products made from bio oils, will show up in your life-if they haven't already. For example, have you noticed how a bag of Sun Chips is noisier than normal? That's because the bag is biodegradable since it's made from 90 percent bio oils. In the last 10 years, biodiesel production has skyrocketed 600 percent. Texas is the United States' largest producer of biodiesel. The GreenHunter energy plant located in Houston has the largest capacity, at 105 million gallons per year. The National Biodiesel Board (NBB) just added a State Fuel Quality Index to its website. So you can see if your state is like Minnesota, which has mandated a biodiesel blend, or if your state is more like California, which has practically stopped the growth of the biodiesel industry by making it illegal to store anything more than B5 in underground fuel tanks.
Photo 3/4   |   Douglas Duchon is a chemical and environmental engineering student. He's using hydro-gasification technology in his senior research project to turn University of California Riverside table scraps into diesel fuel for the school's fleet of vehicles.
The fuel pump will tell you if your diesel has bio-based oils in it, and future pumps could allow you to dial in your preferred mixture of petroleum. Tax incentives and fuel standards will accelerate the bio-revolution, so politics has a lot to do with it. Important laws include Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, Alternative Fuel Refueling Producer Tax Credit, Small Agri-Biodiesel Producer Tax Credit, Volumetric "Blender" Tax Credit, Biodiesel Tax Incentive Reform and Extension Act of 2009, and the Renewable Fuels Standard (RSF2). Remember, the petroleum industry is subsidized, too. Standardization is coming to this industry as fast as its innovations. ASTM International is guiding the way to get all producers and consumers on the same page when it comes to biodiesel quality.
High-Value Bio-Based Chemicals and Their Uses
Glycerol-Also known as glycerin, this is a by-product in the making of biodiesel and has many uses. The food industry uses this as a sweetener and preservative. Glycerol is found in antifreeze, soap, and lubricants. Glycerin is also a major component in the making of nitroglycerin and gunpowder.
Polylactic acid-Also known as PLA, this biodegradable plastic is made from corn starch and sugarcane and is used in medical sutures and stints (and could be used in countless other products). Polylactic acid plastics were invented more than 100 years ago. They are useful because PLA decomposes, unlike the current petroleum-based plastics that are piling up in our oceans and forming what's become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Traditional plastic trash absorbs toxins from the water and is often consumed by the fish we eat, as it slowly breaks down.
Interview with Don Scott of the National Biodiesel Board
Q: How much biodiesel has been made or sold in the United States in the last year?
Photo 4/4   |   bidodiesel Industry Facts soybean
A: A little more than 500 million gallons of biodiesel was produced in the United States last year. That is down from 690 million gallons in 2008. The reduction was mainly due to the falling diesel demand and the fall in oil prices due to the overall economy slowdown. It was the first year of negative growth for our industry. Our goal is to displace 5 percent of U.S. petroleum demand by 2015.
Q: Does the diesel I'm buying now have any biodiesel in it?
A: The Federal Trade Commission has set rules for labeling blends of biodiesel that are more than 6 percent. If the pump contains biodiesel, federal law says you should know about it. Since biodiesel has a higher cetane rating and better lubricity, it is normally marketed as a premium blend. It would be highly unusual for the marketer to conceal any biodiesel content.
The ASTM specification (D 975) for diesel fuel was changed in 2008 to include up to 5 percent biodiesel. Biodiesel up to a 5 percent blend level (B5) is considered fungible diesel fuel-all the major diesel engine manufacturers support at least B5-and there is no federal requirement to label blends of 5 percent or less. The National Conference of Weights and Measures can tell us which states adopt similar regulations. A majority of the sates have labeling regulations mimicking the federal regulation. Minnesota and Illinois are the states most likely to sell biodiesel blends due to incentives in those states.
Q: Who is the nation's largest producer of biodiesel?
A: There are a couple of plants that vie for largest biodiesel production facility. I'm not in a position to settle that race. Perhaps we should call Guinness? Production capacity is quite different than actual production volume. The industry has operated far below capacity since the biodiesel tax credit was enacted in 2004 and 2005. That legislation resulted in construction of 175 plants, and tens of thousands of jobs. Since the tax credit lapsed in December, most plants have been idled and we're losing jobs every day. Actual production specific to individual plants is confidential business data. I don't have access to that info. You can see the list of our members on our website. The biggest biodiesel-producing states (by capacity) are Texas, Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois.
Q: Are there any new standards for biodiesel fuel quality?
A: The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is the consensus organization that brings fuel producers, users, engine and vehicle manufacturers, distribution, and other interests to the table. All these stakeholders develop standards based on that consensus. All the federal programs for biodiesel include meeting ASTM D 6751 on a mandatory basis. ASTM D 6751 is the specification for 100 percent biodiesel as a blend stock for diesel fuel. Biodiesel must meet D 6751 before being blended, and then meet D 975 after being blended up to 5 percent. There is a separate specification for B6 to B20 biodiesel blends.
Q: Is there any new tax or legislation that makes biodiesel easier or harder to make or buy?
A: In December 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). The EPA published rules implementing this law earlier this year. It is supposed to go into effect in July, though the petroleum companies are now suing over that. The EISA, also known as the Federal Renewable Fuel Standard, requires 1 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel to be used as part of our national fuel use. Biodiesel is the only form of biomass-based diesel currently in commercial production with an ASTM specification.
The federal biodiesel tax credit expired in December. This lapse is jeopardizing our progress, so far. Extending this tax credit is the number one priority for our industry right now. Without it, we will not have a renewable option for domestic diesel fuel. We will become increasingly dependent on imported oil. We will lose good American jobs, and we will continue to increase our trade deficit. Our economic future is bleak if we keep borrowing money to buy oil from other countries.
Promising Biodiesel Feedstocks
E. Coli Bacteria - The Department of Energy and a company called LS9 are using E. coli bacteria to directly produce biodiesel from any type of plant part (also known as biomass). This is like having a mini biodiesel factory the size of a living cell.
Castor Bean - This is a non-edible plant, which produces lots of oil with little input costs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and water. It is grown in semi-arid land and does not compete with food-producing plants. Evogene has a price target of $45 per barrel of bio oil, and that's without government subsidies. Remember, petroleum oil has been heavily subsidized in the past and is still getting help today, despite record profits.
Algae - This single-celled bacteria is not only an oil-producing powerhouse, it is also a carbon dioxide-absorbing vacuum. Algae is a new micro-crop, which will find its home next to CO2-producing factories close to the equator.
Human waste - Any carbon-based material with hydrogen can be turned into biodiesel. Few detractors will be able to argue that fuel from waste is taking away from the food supply. Algae farms will also be located next to these new waste management facilities that turn problems into solutions.
Jatropha - This is one of the oil-producing plants that doesn't compete with our nation's food production. It grows on semi-arid land, which is unsuitable for food production. The beauty of using plants as a fuel source is that they swap oxygen and carbon dioxide with humans and animals. This cyclic process is known as the carbon cycle and means your breathing (and fuel burning) wouldn't add CO2 to the system-you'd just be reusing what's already there. Burning oil from under the ground is different, because it is adding new CO2 to the cycle.
Industrial Hemp - A 1938 Popular Mechanics article described hemp as a "new billion-dollar crop." Industrial hemp's history goes back 12,000 years, but it was made illegal by the U.S. government in the '50s. "But isn't hemp the same thing as marijuana?" you ask. The truth is, it doesn't have to be. Industrial hemp is produced when the plant is bred to maximize fiber, seed, and oil. Marijuana is produced when the plant is bred to form THC (delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol-the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana). When grown for industrial purposes, hemp can yield 3 to 8 dry tons of fiber per acre. That makes hemp a more efficient building material than wood, a more prolific cloth source than cotton (50 percent of the world's pesticides go to growing cotton), and the healthiest dietary source of good fats (hemp is the richest known source for polyunsaturated fats).


ASTM International
West Conshohocken, PA 19428
Bio-Based Fuels & Feedstocks
Energy Life-Cycle Assessment of Soyvbean Biodiesel, USDA 2009
Life Cycle Impact of Soybean Production and Soy Industrial Products, The United States Soybean Board 2010
National Biodiesel Board
Washignton, DC 20004
Southern California Biodiesel Users Group
Ventura, CA 93006
North American Industrial Hemp Council
Madison, WI 53725



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