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The Growing Hipness of Biodiesel

Kai Curry
Sundays Energy

 

Imagine a fuel made from soybeans, canola, or any number of crops produced by midwestern farmers. Imagine that fuel can be put into semi-trucks, tractors, buses, and even oil burning furnaces. Imagine this fuel would produce up to 65% fewer emissions. Imagine no more, this type of biofuel called biodiesel is available today!

What Is Biodiesel?

Biodiesel can be made from a number of biological oils such as soybeans, hazelnuts, waste grease or even oil-rich algae. To produce biodiesel, the waste grease or biological oil goes through a chemical reaction called transesterification. In addition, glycerin must be removed from the oil by adding methanol or ethanol. Lye triggers are then added to produce the chemical reaction and the end result is a substance that acts a lot more like diesel in the engine- biodiesel.

Production & Modifications

Luckily, in Minnesota, we have access to biodiesel production facilities. In 2005, the first biodiesel production plant in Minnesota opened its doors in Redwood Falls (FUMPA Biofuels). Plants in Brewster (MnSP Brewster) and Glenville (SoyMor) are also producing biodiesel.

When powering vehicles with biodiesel, it is not necessary to make modifications to engines unless they have natural rubber parts, sometimes used for hoses and seals. Because biodiesel acts as a solvent, it eats away at natural rubber. Fortunately, all vehicles sold in the USA after 1994 have replaced all rubber parts with synthetic parts.

Distribution & Users

Biodiesel distribution is able to use the existing petroleum supply as well as the transportation and distribution infrastructure, including run-of-the-mill gas station pumps. Other distribution locations include independent or co-op gas station owners. Many are often willing to serve even a small group of motivated customers who want to see biodiesel near them. Currently, BioDiesel Blue Distribution has been filling the gap and providing biodiesel to retail stations in La Farge and Cameron, WI as well as Duluth, St. Paul, and at the Pump N Munch on 63rd and Lyndale in Minneapolis.

Twin Cities locals such as Eureka Recycling and Peace Coffee are users and advocates of biodiesel for their fleet and delivery vehicles. Environmentally-conscious musicians have also been supporting biodiesel to fuel their national tours, including the Vans Warped Tour, Neil Young, Indigo Girls, and Pearl Jam. With the realization that diesel vehicles are much more efficient than gasoline-burning vehicles (diesel cars average 30-50 mpg), even cost savvy consumers are demanding more biodiesel. The environmental benefits of drastically reduced emissions combined with support for local agriculture makes biodiesel more attractive than ever.

Other Biofuels

There are other types of biofuels available, including veggie oil, bioethanol and biobutanol. 

Veggie oil or waste grease has been receiving much attention in media recently. Yet, despite its novelty, veggie oil can only be considered a niche product. Diesel engines have to be converted to use this fuel and the process of picking up waste grease from local restaurants is messy and intensive. A number of legal obstacles may also stunt the growing exuberance for using veggie oil because it is not an approved fuel by the Environmental Protection Agency even though fuel efficiency, emissions, and engine effects are similar to that of biodiesel. 

Bioethanol (in Minnesota it is referred to as E85), is another biofuel receiving much media exposure. E10 and E85 (10 percent and 85 percent ethanol) are the two common bioethanol mixtures available in the U.S. The vast majority of the bioethanol is derived from corn. The energy efficiency of bioethanol is a controversial topic. Many argue that more fossil fuels are used to produce bioethanol than is actually saved. Ethanol is quickly growing in public acceptance because it is highly subsidized by state and federal governments resulting in prices cheaper than petroleum gasoline. Like biodiesel, bioethanol dissolves rubber and plastic. However, bioethanol requires engine modifications if using higher 10% ethanol (E10). 

Biobutanol is a biofuel that is similar to ethanol in production and environmental effects. Biobutanol is produced by the fermentation of biomass (crop, plant or forest residue) and is less corrosive than ethanol. Unlike ethanol, it can be distributed through existing fuel lines. Additionally, biobutanol results in a reduction in miles per gallon. The availability of biobutanol and its limiting factor in miles per gallon has limited its demand and thus limited the desire to expand its availability. Environmental effects of biobutanol are similar to that of ethanol.

The current challenges for the biofuel industry lie in education and awareness about the benefits and in creating consumer demand. Take time to learn more about these fuels and think about making the switch to a cleaner, more energy efficient fuel.

Resources:

  • Biodiesel Power by Lyle Estill, New Society Publishers 2005.
  • From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as an Alternative Fuel by Joshua Tickell, Tickell Energy Consultants 2000.
  • Sundays Energy 612-605-1788 kai@sundaysenergy.com Minneapolis, MN www.sundaysenergy.com
  • Western Petroleum Company 800-972-3835 bemison@westernpetro.com Eden Prairie, MN www.westernpetro.com
Biodiesel

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