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April 25, 2014  |  Login
The Pros and Cons of Biodiesel: Renewable Fuel for the Future

By Dan Chiras

Biodiesel is a renewable fuel that could help us meet our needs for transportation fuels as the age of oil winds down. But that's not its only plus.

Economic Benefits

Biodiesel can help stimulate our nation's economy, in part, by reducing its reliance on foreign oil. It could also help stimulate rural economies. In the coming years, many farmers will be enlisted to produce "fuel grains" for the biodiesel market. Their seed crops will be converted to vegetable oil by local biodiesel manufacturers. Crop production and local manufacturing not only create stronger local and regional economies, they help forge the path to a more decentralized and sustainable system of fuel production. In Colorado, for example, a leader in biodiesel production, known as Blue Sun, makes biodiesel from seed crops, such as rapeseed (canola), grown by local farmers. They currently sell their product at 16 gas stations in the state.

Energy Efficient

There's also good news about biodiesel on the net-energy efficiency front. Unlike other options, such as hydrogen, oil shale, and tar sands, biodiesel production is amazingly energy efficient. According to Marc Franke, an Iowa-based proponent of biodiesel, the net energy efficiency of biodiesel production from soy oil is 3.2; from canola or rapeseed oil it is 4.3.What these figures mean is that for every unit of energy invested in biodiesel production, you get 3.2 units of energy output from soy oil and 4.3 units of energy from canola oil. According to Franke, it would take 7 acres of soybeans to supply soybeans to extract the oil needed to make biodiesel for a diesel car that travels 15,000 miles per year and gets 44 miles per gallon. It would take 2.7 acres of canola oil to do the same thing.

Abundant Sources

Seed crops are not the only potential source of biodiesel, however. Biodiesel can also be produced from vegetable oils discarded by local restaurants, reducing their disposal costs while providing a valuable renewable liquid transportation fuel. According to Franke, US restaurants, including all the fast-food chains, produce an estimated three billion gallons of waste vegetable oil per year!

There are a lot of other sources, too. For example, biodiesel can be manufactured from algae, another potentially renewable source. Algae could be grown in ponds associated with sewage treatment plants, helping reduce pollution while generating liquid fuel for North America's transportation system.

Diesel fuel can also be produced from organic waste, such as that generated at turkey farms, using a process known as Thermal De-Polymerization (TDP). Agricultural organic wastes, says Franke, produce enough material to make four billion barrels of biodiesel each year!

But how does biodiesel perform? Will car owners be sacrificing performance?

Reduce Emissions

According to Franke, biodiesel offers the same performance as regular diesel, but dramatically reduces tailpipe emissions. For example, biodiesel contains no sulfur, so combustion of this fuel source eliminates sulfur oxide emissions that contribute to acid rain and snow, a big problem with conventional diesel vehicles.

Moreover, says Franke, there's no black smoke spewing from tailpipes of cars or trucks powered by biodiesel as they pass other vehicles or power up a hill. Complete-cycle carbon dioxide production from the manufacture of the fuel and use of biodiesel cars and trucks is 78 percent lower than from vehicles powered by standard diesel fuel. more




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