Biodiesel Fuel: Homegrown Oil

Learn how clean, renewable biodiesel fuel is a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based fuel and how it can power any diesel engine.

| February/March 2006

Imagine a renewable, clean-burning fuel that can be produced from local crops and could power a large number of existing vehicles — starting now. That fuel is biodiesel, which is made primarily of vegetable oil and alcohol and can be used in any modern diesel engine.

In the last few years, many farmers, environmentalists and other renewable energy advocates have begun promoting biodiesel as an alternative fuel that could replace at least a portion of the world’s petroleum-based diesel fuel market. Using biodiesel is an idea with widespread appeal because it pollutes far less than petroleum-based diesel and could help reduce our need for foreign oil.

In fact, biodiesel fuel already is widely used in Europe, where tax policies are structured to support its use. In Germany — where diesel engines power close to 40 percent of passenger cars — more than 1,800 filling stations offer biodiesel at a price competitive with that of petroleum-based diesel fuel.

In the United States, the public is just becoming aware of the potential of biodiesel, but the development of a biodiesel industry is already well underway. Many Midwestern soybean farmers have joined forces with other entrepreneurs to build biodiesel production capacity and infrastructure. At the same time, federal and state agencies and independent organizations have been testing biodiesel performance and setting production standards. With that firm foundation, the commercial biodiesel industry is growing rapidly, and biodiesel is becoming more accessible to drivers eager to fill their cars with this eco-friendly fuel. However, biodiesel can be used for more than fueling diesel-powered cars or trucks. In fact, the majority of the world’s heavy-transportation is diesel-powered, and all of these vehicles could be powered by biodiesel: buses, trucks, tractors, heavy machinery, boats and even trains. Biodiesel also can be used in any diesel-powered electrical generator, as well as in oil-fired furnaces and boilers (see Heat Your Home with Biodiesel).

Liquid Solar Energy

Although “diesel” is part of its name, pure biodiesel does not contain any petroleum-based diesel, also called “petrodiesel.” Instead, biodiesel is created from organic matter. It can be made from virtually any vegetable oil, including soy, corn, rapeseed (canola), peanut or sunflower — as well as from recycled cooking oil, animal fats or even algae.

Biodiesel has been called “liquid solar energy” because its energy content is derived from plants that capture solar energy during photosynthesis. The plants grown to produce biodiesel consume carbon dioxide (CO2), so they naturally balance most of the CO2 released when the fuel is combusted, offsetting a major contributing factor to global warming.

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