Bean power Featured

10:01am EDT July 22, 2002

Any business with a fleet knows about the ever-growing regulations handed down by federal and state governments. The more vehicles you have, the more responsibility you have to bear in reducing emissions.

Many of the regulations focus on alternative fuel vehicles, with the thinking that fleet managers have the ability to install central fueling facilities to accommodate cleaner fuels, such as natural gas. Unfortunately, many alternative fuels require either specially manufactured vehicles, or expensive engine modifications on existing ones. In addition, the business must bear the cost of installing new fueling facilities and retraining mechanics to service the new engines.

But one new fuel not only burns clean, but requires no engine modifications-biodiesel, made from vegetable oil and animal fats.

"It works in any compression diesel engine with no modifications," says Jeff Horvath, CEO of the National Biodiesel Board, based in Jefferson City, Mo. "It uses an agricultural resource, and doesn't move products from food to fuel." Biodiesel is made primarily from excess soybeans that would usually go to waste, but can also utilize used cooking oils from fast food restaurants or rendered animals. "It takes what would have been a waste product and turns it into a clean-burning fuel."

Biodiesel is usually mixed as a 20 percent blend with regular diesel fuel, and is supported by close to 50 oil companies who see this alternative fuel as a means of maintaining their market share as more stringent clean-air requirements make it more difficult for petroleum products to compete.

"Biodiesel does not compete with regular diesel," says Horvath. "It complements it. It only competes with other alternative fuels. With other technology, there is a noticeable decrease in power, but with biodiesel, nothing is noticed by the drivers. The fuel economy is virtually unchanged."

Because biodiesel is also a strong solvent, it tends to clean engine deposits out when first used, requiring a more frequent change of filters for a short time. Some older vehicles may require a new hose or gasket-because of the composition of the rubber, it may react with the biodiesel. The Biodiesel Board keeps a database of which vehicles need to have these parts changed.

Biodiesel has the same benefits as burning natural gas. While pouring soybean oil into fuel may sound strange, consider that the diesel engine was actually designed to run on peanut oil, but petroleum products were cheaper and used instead. Operationally, biodiesel performs very similarly to low sulfur diesel in terms of power, torque and fuel.

"Biodiesel has the same benefits of natural gas and is an easy transition," says Horvath. "This doesn't require the reinventing of the fueling infrastructure. Fuel is distributed by the petroleum companies' pipelines and refineries."

Natural gas use may also require not only vehicle modifications and new fueling stations, but improvements to buildings to make them flashproof against gas explosions.

Biodiesel is currently expensive. Wholesale diesel costs about 42 cents a gallon, while biodiesel is $3 to $4 a gallon. Limited distribution accounts for about $1 of that, and as demand increases, the price should decrease.

Once Congress approves biodiesel as an alternative fuel-and that approval is expected soon-fleets can earn clean-air credits by demonstrating a 450 gallons per year displacement of petroleum. For example, a light duty truck traveling 16,400 miles on 1,025 gallons of B20 (a 20 percent mixture of biodiesel and regular diesel) would displace 205 gallons of diesel-20 percent of the original 1,025 gallons of fuel was displaced by biodiesel. A fleet of three trucks with these same statistics would displace enough petroleum fuel to earn clean air credits.

Consider the following emission testing results of B20 compared to conventional diesel:

  • Carbon monoxide-the exhaust emissions of carbon monoxide (a poisonous gas) from biodiesel were 20 percent lower than carbon monoxide emissions from diesel.

  • Particulate matter-breathing particulate has been shown to be a human health hazard. The exhaust emissions of particulate matter from biodiesel were 22 percent lower than emissions from diesel.

  • Hydrocarbons-the exhaust emissions of total hydrocarbons (a contributing factor in the localized formation of smog and ozone) were 30 percent lower for biodiesel.

  • Nitrogen oxides- NOx emissions from biodiesel increase or decrease depending on the engine family and testing procedures. On average, a 2 percent increase in NOx occurred.

  • Other nonregulated emissions-biodiesel emissions showed decreased levels of various cancer-causing compounds by 13 to 50 percent.

For more information on biodiesel, or to find a supplier near you, contact the Biodiesel Board at (800) 841-5894 or go to