Liquid Solar

The sweet smell of biodiesel was a concern in the founding of Yellowstone’s National Park Truck-in-the-Park program.
In 1994, as rangers prepared to run one 4×4 truck on the vegetable-oil fuel, they worried that aromas from the tailpipe would attract the park’s beloved bears.
By March 2002, the truck had run more than 180,000 miles with no modifications to its engine or fuel system — and no incidents with curious bears.
“Animals don’t bother with it, so that’s fine,” said Howard Haines, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality official who founded and coordinated the program.
In September 1998, the engine manufacturer sent mechanics to tear down and analyze the motor. They found scant wear and no carbon build-up from the rapeseed-based oil, Haines said. Yellowstone’s biodiesel, which costs only about 15 cents more per gallon wholesale than petroleum diesel, achieves equivalent mileage and acceleration — and burns cleaner. “The taxpayers will have their vehicles last longer,” Haines said.
But it’s good for more than just engines.
In June 2000, Congress announced that biodiesel had passed the health effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The tests found the fuel poses no health threat, has no toxic byproducts, is completely biodegradable, and contains no sulfur or carcinogenic compounds. Compared to petroleum diesel, biodiesel produced slightly more nitrogen oxides, but
• 93% fewer hydrocarbons (a major precursor to ground-level ozone, the main component of smog).
• 30% less particulate matter (later studies found 55% to 85% less).
• 50% less carbon monoxide.
• 50% to 85% less carcinogenic aromatics, like benzene and toluene.
• Zero sulfur oxides and sulfates
(contributing factors to acid rain).
The Congressional figures, compiled in  1998 by the US Department of Energy and the US Department of Agriculture, also found biodiesel reduces net emissions of the global warming agent carbon dioxide by 78%.
Not surprisingly, the Truck-in-the-Park program has become a model. From the one 4×4 in 1994, the Yellowstone region will have 120 biodiesel vehicles operating this summer, including in at least four of the largest local cities, which seek to improve visibility and reduce petrodiesel odors. “The people in the area have liked it, too,” said Haines.
Use of a rapeseed-based biodiesel has remained high for the last 15 or 20 years in Europe — at about 250 million gallons per year, said Jenna Higgins of the National Biodiesel Board, an industry association in Jefferson City, Missouri. Biodiesel runs only in diesel engines, which power proportionately more vehicles in Europe than in the US.
But the United States is rapidly catching up. While no hard numbers on biodiesel use exist, the National Biodiesel Board estimates that US use increased 30-fold in the past two full years — from 500,000 gallons in 1999 to nearly 15 million gallons in 2001. That’s expected to quadruple to 60 million gallons in 2002, Higgins said.
“We’re adding two or three fleets a week,” said Keith Ciampa of World Energy, a Massachusetts-based biodiesel wholesaler, who said his client load has grown 100-fold in just over two years — from two in 1999 to more than 200 in 2002.
“US Air Force, US Marines, Manhattan Post Office, University of Massachusetts Amherst: You name it.”
Convenience is part of the attraction. Diesel engines, which cause combustion by compression rather than spark, require no retrofitting for biodiesel.
Most biodiesel — usually made from oil left over from restaurants or soymeal processing — goes to centrally fueled fleets, where bulk purchases are easy. In most cases, fueling stations mix in 80% diesel to make “B20” fuel, which reduces prices and helps in cold weather. Petroleum becomes too viscous for the engine to start at about 5°; blended biodiesel, or B20, at about 8-10°; pure B100 at about 25° to 30°.
But by early 2001, the recycling programs of San Jose and of Berkeley’s Ecology Center became the first municipal programs in the nation to use B100.
“Diesel engines are extremely sturdy; they’ll be on the road for at least another generation,” said Dave Williamson, Ecology Center recycling manager, whose 10 biodiesel trucks “kept one ton of particulates out of the air” in 2001. “Why not run them on a cleaner, smarter fuel — one that is not in short supply?”
By definition, fossil fuels will someday be in short supply.
“The oil industry has had a 100-year head start, a trillion dollars of fueling and distribution infrastructure, and we protect it with our lives, literally,” said Ciampa. “But the country realizes it’s a security problem now. That’s never been more obvious than these days.”
In the wake of the Persian Gulf War, Congress passed the 1992 Energy Policy Act mandating how state and federal agencies and utility companies could help reduce petroleum use: buy vehicles that could use alternative fuels. A 1998 law allowed fleet managers to simply convert to biodiesel for compliance, and they did. Demand soared, lowering wholesale prices from about $2.50–$4.50 a gallon to just over $1.50, Ciampa said.
But biodiesel has also attracted users, like the Blue and Gold ferry in San Francisco and Deer Valley school district in Phoenix, to whom the mandate doesn’t apply. “A growing number of our clients are school bus fleets,” says Ciampa. “The managers are starting to recognize just how toxic diesel exhaust is.”
So are many individuals.
About 20 gas stations nationwide, including in South Carolina, Michigan, and Massachusetts, offer “liquid solar” to the public, said Ciampa. San Francisco’s Olympian station was the nation’s first to do so, in February 2001. Olympian’s B100 prices are about 60 cents a gallon higher than for their standard diesel. Any diesel car can tap the pump. Since its debut, biodiesel has nearly quadrupled in sales, said Olympian manager Tom Burke.
In February 2002, the US Senate Finance Committee voted a one-cent per gallon reduction in excise tax “for every 1% of biodiesel that is blended into standard diesel fuel — up to 20%.” Though it reinforces putting mostly petroleum in the gas tank, the incentive would be “a huge step in the right direction,” said Joshua Tickell, author of From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as a Fuel. “Oil is the single most powerful industry in the world and we’ve been trying to pass bills like this for years. Here the edifice may be cracking.”
Just what Dr. Rudolf Diesel had hoped.
At the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, the French-born thermal engineer and social theorist ran his namesake engine on peanut oil — in deliberate defiance of a petroleum-dominated industrial age. Vegetable oil is easier to obtain and process than petroleum, but has a higher “flashpoint” — it needs a much stronger spark to ignite. By offering a compression-based engine that got around that, Diesel sought not only to help the common worker bypass petroleum cartels but also to “help considerably in the development of agriculture.”
Early on, the petroleum industry appropriated Diesel’s engine. Even now, Gulf Oil sponsors the biodiesel wholesaler World Energy. But biodiesel is still agricultural, and easy to make: To process it, you take raw vegetable oil or grease and “transesterify” it — adding alcohol, lye, or another catalyst. That splits off glycerine, which can gum up a fuel injector. At the Berkeley Biodiesel Project, people can even make their own: “Bring your checkbook and gloves, and be prepared to stir the pot,” said coordinator Jon Bauer.
Much biodiesel uses french-fry oil, but virgin soy oil dominates; billions of gallons of it remain after soymeal processing. From the Fryer reports that palm oil (yielding about 4,600 pounds of oil per acre) is far more efficient than soy (345 pounds). Europe uses mostly rapeseed (canola) (915 pounds), whose planting also serves to preserve open space. And algae, as yet commercially unavailable, “is 1,000% more efficient in acres used than soy,” said author Tickell.
No advocate claims that biodiesel production should displace food acreage. If all 60 billion gallons of diesel used in the US each year came from soy crops, it would require roughly 1.4 billion acres — about three times the total cropland in the US. But if rapeseed were grown on cropland now fallowed by the US government for economic reasons, the oil could, combined with used cooking oil, supply 25% of the nation’s entire diesel capacity, said Tickell. Biodiesel staples soy and rapeseed have genetically engineered varieties controlled by agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland. But organic farms could also supply sources of biodiesel, said Tickell.
As Ciampa put it: “We’re trying not just to displace petroleum and clean up the environment — but to shift the cash stream to US farms.”

Comments are closed.