Biodiesel Fuel: One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Fuel

Biodiesel fuel is one of several alternative energy technologies derived from biomass. Biomass-based energy can be produced using a wide variety of organic material, including plant matter, vegetable oils, animal fats, and waste products. According to oregon.gov, plants store energy from the sun in the form of carbohydrates through the process of photosynthesis, and energy is released from the stored carbohydrates as the plants decompose, creating an opportunity to capture a source of renewable energy.

Biodiesel Production and Distribution

Biodiesel is mainly produced from vegetable oils and animal fats through a process called esterification. The oils or fats are combined with an alcohol and a catalyst, often methanol and sodium hydroxide, to create methyl esters, or crude biodiesel. The esters are further refined and separated from contaminants to produce pure biodiesel fuel. Biodiesel can be sold in a pure form or blended with traditional diesel fuel in a variety of proportions, much like ethanol.

Since biodiesel is produced using highly renewable and abundant sources, production facilities can be located nearly anywhere and transported to distribution facilities via truck, rail, or ship. Production facilities are currently located throughout the United States, with the highest concentration in the continental Midwest. According to afdc.energy.gov, pipeline technology suited to the transport of biodiesel fuel has not yet been perfected.

Advantages of Biodiesel

Biodiesel fuel production creates a highly sustainable balance in the area of emissions and environmental stability. To produce plant-based biodiesel fuel, plants must be grown at the same rate at which they are harvested, and the plants themselves serve to reduce the gasses emitted by burning the fuel. This is vastly preferable to traditional fossil fuel based energy production that cannot replace the resources it harvests and does nothing to counterbalance its own emissions.

Biodiesel fuel is also non-toxic, making it safer to handle and reducing the environmental risk of spills and accidents.

Drawbacks of Biodiesel

Although biodiesel production serves to nearly offset its harmful emissions, the fuel emits a greater amount of Nitrogen Oxide than other alternative fuels, such as hydrogen and natural gas.

Pure biodiesel fuels and blends with lower traditional diesel content are not yet approved by auto manufacturers for use in diesel engines, due to the higher level of engine wear caused by the oil-based fuel. Issues such as sticky deposits and lube oil gelling are challenges that biodiesel manufacturers must overcome before the fuel can be commercially viable on an international scale.

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