Wednesday, May 03, 2006


VIA The statesman Journal, AP brings us the latest news on the newest fad in fuels:

“Biodiesel now cheaper than regular diesel”

The article relates that the price of B-99, a mix of 99% biodiesel and 1% petroleum diesel is now $2.77 a gallon, 2¢ cheaper than the average pump price for petroleum diesel in the Portland, Oregon area. The article doesn’t relate whether or not the price of B-99 is in any way subsidized.

Biodiesel… For years, its been the holy oil of the green movement – the fuel of tomorrow, easy to make out of everything from old fryer oil to hemp seed, usable as-is in any diesel engine – David, come to slay the oil company’s Goliath…

It was a dream worthy of the hemp some wanted to make it from…

It’s caught on in some diverse places. Willie Nelson, country singer - and hemp fan extraordinaire – has launched his own enterprise selling biodiesel, which he calls “Biowillie:”

“His Car Smelling Like French Fries, Willie Nelson Sells Biodiesel”

Spurred by price, the current industrial renaissance of biodiesel has gotten a head start in Europe, where industrial scale production has been growing steadily since the late ‘90’s. According to the European Biodiesel Board, last year Europe’s 25 biodiesel producing nations produced 3.1 million metric tons of biodiesel – by my calculations just shy of a billion gallons or 23 million barrels:

More recently here in the US, big industry has jumped on board and the biodiesel express is leaving the station, French Fry exhaust rising from the stacks. Last year, the total US production topped 75 million gallons. Locally, Oregon is currently producing 2 million gallons annually – plus whatever the backyard crowd is making – and Carson Oil, mentioned in the original link, just arranged with a Minnesota producer to sell its soy-based biodiesel in Oregon, intending to move 15 million gallons a year through the Columbia River port of Vancouver just north of Portland in Washington State.

Not to be outdone, Washington’s legislature, prodded by Governor Christine Gregoire, passed a bill during the last legislative session mandating a minimum biofuels content in automotive fuel sold in the state by 2012. Designed to compliment the Federal Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) that mandates the US reach 7.5 billion gallons of  annual biofuel use by 2012, the State mandate requires 10% ethanol for gasoline and 5% biodiesel in diesel by the target date.

So is this “IT?” Is biodiesel the fuel that can replace petroleum, saving the planet from pollution & global warming, providing an inexhaustible supply of domestically produced, farm-raised fuel? If there are pitfalls – environmental or otherwise – what are they?

And what is biodiesel, anyway? First, what is diesel?

Diesel can be defined two ways. Diesel fuel is a middle distillate of reformed petroleum, but diesel can also be defined as fuel that will burn in a diesel engine, irrespective of source. Biodiesel, at its best, meets this definition.

At its best… Under most conditions, the best biodiesel will run head to head with petroleum diesel. More conservatively, biodiesel – especially if made from reclaimed fats or oils – is only usable as a blend, the common ratios being 2%, 5%, and 20%, called B-2, B-5, and B-20, respectively. So it is more accurate to refer to biodiesel as a diesel extender.

But what is biodiesel?

Chemistry lesson… Bear with me…

Biodiesel is a mixture of fatty acid methyl esters, sometimes referred to in the lab as FAMES. Esters are the result of the combination of a carboxylic acid and an alcohol.


If you combine ordinary ethyl alcohol with the carboxylic acid acetic acid – the acid in vinegar – and prod the mix with a bit of sulfuric acid, it forms the ester ethyl acetate and water. Ethyl acetate is a common, useful solvent for lacquers and such innocuous things as fingernail polish.

“Alcohols” are defined by the presence of one or more hydroxyl groups, chemical subunits consisting of an oxygen and a hydrogen; shorthand, OH. An alcohol molecule can have one to several hydroxyl groups.


Start with ordinary propane, consisting of a three carbon backbone and eight hydrogens. Now, just substitute one hydroxyl for a hydrogen. Put it on either end, you get propyl alcohol. Put it in the middle you get isopropyl alcohol, the stuff in rubbing alcohol. If you now do another substitution on another carbon you get a di-ol, propylene glycol, the stuff in pet-safe antifreeze. Do a third substitution – the maximum possible – and you get the tri-ol glycerol, otherwise called glycerin.

You can make esters out of glycerol, which are known as glycerides. These can be mono, di, or triglycerides. The fats in foods are triglycerides, formed from glycerine and three units of any of several long-chain – 16 carbons, more or less - carboxylic acids known as fatty acids.

Now you are ready to make biodiesel. To do so you trans-esterify – change one ester to another. In the mind’s eye, picture a stool with three long, spindly legs. That’s a triglyceride. If one mixes methyl alcohol with caustic soda, the resulting highly reactive compound “breaks” the legs off the stool, creating that methyl ester of the fatty acid and converting the triglyceride back to glycerin. You get three units methyl ester for every unit of glycerin byproduct. Chemically, it’s an elegant system. A light alcohol and a heavy ester rearrange themselves into a lighter ester and a heavier alcohol.

Making biodiesel is like making a soufflé. It’s easy to do, but a lot harder to do it right… The basic procedure only works with the best oil. Some virgin oils and all used oils like fryer oil must first be measured for free fatty acids, and then esterified to treat the free fatty acids which will otherwise form soap. All biodiesel has to be “washed” to remove excess caustic soda, and the residual methanol must be extracted. Either of these substances can ruin an engine. Which might be a caution to the adventurous…

For a wealth of information the organization Journey To Forever

is a good place to start. They have a pair of excellent recipes for biodiesel I would recommend – if you’re adventurous…

If the foregoing seems a bit tedious, consider it as necessary to de-bunk some of the wild claims made about biodiesel, foremost being:

Biodiesel doesn’t pollute. Poppycock! Esters are modified hydrocarbons. The combustion of hydrocarbons produces carbon dioxide and water. No free lunch here. Yes, there is oxygen in an ester – in the case of biodiesel the average oxygen content is around 10% by mass. But this oxygen is already combined. Its dead weight, doing nothing except dampening the process, which is all any so-called “oxygenate” does.

In a comparative sense, it’s true diesel contains secondary pollutants, including a very small amount of acid-rain and smog causing sulfur, and biodiesel doesn’t. But burning biodiesel or any hydrocarbon with ordinary air in an internal combustion engine still creates oxides of nitrogen which does much the same thing. No free lunch there, either…

Where did the “non-polluting” idea come from? That’s an extension of the short-cycle theory. So how does this hold up? That depends…

It’s a straightforward concept. If I plant a crop, as it grows it consumes carbon dioxide and water. If I then make fuel out of it and burn it, I “liberate” the carbon dioxide and water, “replenishing” the atmosphere so the material can be re-used.

Very natural… But where do you grow your crop, how much do you get for your efforts… And what is growing there now? After all, in terms of pollution, while it may be argued planting “new” acreage zeros out pollution, merely swapping one crop for another does nothing, since existing crops already consume carbon dioxide and water.

Now we get into some of the finer points. First of all, some more chemistry. As any cook knows, the properties of various oils – palm oil, canola oil, etc. vary. This is because the fatty acid chains vary. They vary in length, physical shape, carbon content, and hydrogen saturation – hence the terms saturated, unsaturated, & polyunsaturated encountered when discussing oils. Whole oils contain varying amounts of free fatty acids which must be dealt with. Just as there are “better” oils for cooking, there are better oils for making biodiesel. The degree of saturation in particular matters, as it affects the freezing point of the product and its mixing characteristics with petroleum diesel.

So it turns out that while you can make biodiesel from any oil source, there are “best” choices. Likewise, there are best choices for the farmer. Obviously not everything will grow everywhere, and predictably yields per acre will vary widely. Journey To Forever provides this dandy chart:

The 36 oil plants listed vary in yield from a low of 18 gallons per acre for corn to a high of 635 gallons per acre for Oil Palm. In the temperate zones, the crop choices are necessarily limited: Three common candidates are rapeseed, peanuts, and soybeans. Rapeseed, the source of Canola oil, will yield approximately 127 gallons per acre; peanuts, 113; and soy – the source oil for Carson Industries Oregon imports – about 48 gallons per acre.

Hemp is only good for 39 gallons per acre… Sorry, hempsters…

This brings us to another wild claim that needs debunking: Biodiesel can replace petroleum diesel. A thought experiment…

Let’s pick a practical candidate: Soy. According to the USDA, a bit over 72 million acres of soybeans were cultivated last year.

If we use Journey To Forever’s self-described “conservative” estimates of yield for soy as well as their yield conversion factor of .8 for biodiesel yield, and divert every bit of US soy production to biodiesel, we have:

72,000,000 X 48 X .8 = 2,764,800,000 gallons of biodiesel production “possible.”

2.7 billion gallons… The current US consumption of diesel for transportation is around 50 billion gallons a year. Transportation only – that doesn’t count other diesel uses, or the gargantuan demand for heating oil, quite similar to diesel chemically.

All of our soybean production… A 5% drop in the bucket… Needless to say, that crop is already spoken for. So suffice it to say the US would need a lot more soybean production to meet the goal…

Could soybean acreage under production be doubled? Tripled? I don’t know. But we would need a twenty-fold increase in total production, a combination of better yields and more acres, to replace all of our diesel consumption. A billion and a half acres, accepting our 48 gallons per acre production.

The numbers are sobering. According to the USDA, there is just under a billion acres of farmland in the US today, of which about 434 million acres are classified as cropland and 300 million acres are currently in production. If one could, by fiat, put the difference into soybean production for biodiesel – a tripling of total soybean production -  the 134 million acres would yield about 5 billion gallons of biodiesel… 10% of the current demand. Needless to say, a lot of that 134 million acres won’t grow soybeans – or any other oil crop.

Even if every scrap of the billion acres currently unused – about 700 million acres – could be magically made to produce soybeans, we would still only be able to produce just over half of our current diesel consumption. And none of this accounts for the immense effort and energy cost involved in growing, harvesting, and processing the oilseed.

Impossible. It really doesn’t matter how you juggle the numbers, there isn’t enough production capacity available to do more than slightly augment current supplies, and any effort to do more would merely transform our fuel shortage into an arable land shortage, with biodiesel competing against many other needs.

So where do we get the oil? We’re back to foreign dependence… And some of the sources are very suspect environmentally.

Consider Oil Palms…

Probably the best current choice for biodiesel production is the Oil Palm. Beating soy’s yield by better than ten times, it is also the best oil for biodiesel manufacture, having the best chemical properties. It’s a tropical plant, not suited to much of the US…

There is an ecological disaster in the making, created by the demand for biodiesel…

Tropical rainforests are being destroyed to make way for Oil Palm. In Malaysia, some of the Earth’s most vital rainforests are being dozed and burned to make way for palms. The biggest new customer for this expanding industry is the European biodiesel industry. From the UK Guardian:

“The most destructive crop on earth is no solution to the energy crisis”,5673,1659036,00.html

The pattern is being repeated in Indonesia, Central America, and Brazil. Brazil is especially keen on the prospects; the Brazilian government has set use targets similar to those in the US:

“Brazil Takes the Biodiesel Route”

Brazil is moving aggressively to expand Oil Palm, soy, and Castor Bean. Only the last is being planted in otherwise “unused” land: Palm and soy production is claiming thousands of acres of rainforest annually.

And as petroleum prices outstrip biofuels prices the trend can only accelerate.

On a practical level, an environmentalist recognizes there are parts of the earth that are more valuable ecologically than the rest. Without a doubt, the most important terrestrial ecosystems are the tropical rainforests, accounting, as they do for a vastly disproportionate amount of total atmospheric renewal. Destroying the lungs of the earth to produce “clean” fuel is perhaps the greatest mistake technological man can make.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to any critically thinking person: It took nature millions of years to create the petroleum reserves we are consuming today, and the scale of that use is staggering. All biofuels suffer from the same defects as biodiesel: They are relatively expensive, their production is labor, land, and energy intensive, and they are fraught with unexpected environmental downsides. Oh, there are possibilities: An algae being investigated for biodiesel is believed to be capable of perhaps 100 times the yield per acre as its next competitor. But that’s tomorrow… Maybe…

And all other “renewable” energy sources have similar problems. Hydro power, wind farms, you name it – there is an ecological harm involved, and usually somebody ready to fight to prevent that harm…

Bottom line: Replacing the 80 million barrels of crude oil the world uses for fuel and the manufacture of a host of products including fertilizer, plastics, and chemicals EVERY DAY is a task too big for any one source or technology currently available and probably too big for all of them put together. But as long as the price remains high, markets will dictate the ongoing development of those alternatives. So there’s certainly a future for biodiesel… But it’s almost equally certain the future is a lot less rosy than the proponents of biodiesel want us to believe.

What’s needed is a hardheaded approach designed to “boondoggle proof” biodiesel and other biofuels. While it may be a societal good to, for example, mandate a biofuels fraction in fuel, it’s sure to backfire if the only way it works is to subsidize the industry, as has been the case with ethanol in the past. It has to pay – which makes the recent price news good news. And it has to prove it can pay its way environmentally, something as yet unproven.

So for now, caveat emptor…

Wow – Great post possum. Im going to read it again tomorrow but I think this might be one I am printing out and putting in the file.

I never really quite understood biodiesel. A lot of my friends use it but just some how there was this nagging problem. I never saw how you could get billions of gallons of anything from whatever farm land is not currently being used, much less farm it so that energy in < energy out.

Another thing that always nagged at me was Bob Dole used to always be called Mr. Ethanol, since he was the one who mandated ethanol blends and was criticized because it was essentially watering down beer with scotch. This was sort of the infancy of the fuels from plants biodiesel movement. If that was a scam, then why so accepting of biodiesel now? Anyway. Great post.
You make some great points in here, possum.

I guess what I've learned through the responses to my posts on is this: It's going to take many different solutions to dig us out of this energy hole, and by that I'm referring at least as much to the climate implications of any fuel as I am referring to the cost implications. But you are right that we can't grow all the biodiesel we'll need in this country (unless we can make it *much* more efficient, and I still have faith in Americans as great innovators) -- and growing it in former tropical rainforests definitely has definite down sides. (Just consider the orangutans.)

My conclusion: We're going to need a hundred 1 percent solutions. So in that context, suddenly, getting 10 or 15 % from biodiesel sounds pretty *good*!

Two related posts (and don't miss the comments) on my blog are:
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?