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Biodiesel May Power More Engines, Sunflower Too

Monday, January 1, 2001
filed under: Utilization/Trade

Biodiesel May Power More Engines—and Sunflower Too

No, it isn’t sunflower oil that holds promise in pumping pistons, but soybean oil. And as the soy oil market goes, so do other oilseeds.

Biodiesel could be used to power a lot more diesel engines in the near future, and sunflower may be one of the big winners if it does. No, it isn’t sunflower oil that holds promise in pumping pistons, but soybean oil. That’s because soybean oil is usually the cheapest and most available vegetable oil. And longtime watchers of the oilseed market know that as the soy oil market goes, so do the rest of the oilseeds.

“When we sit on large stocks of soy oil, it affects all the vegetable oils, just like winter wheat impacts the rest of the wheat classes. But the broader issue is that most vegetable oils are a byproduct of something. Only palm, canola, and sunflower are produced primarily for oil. Right now, we are being impacted by soy oil, a byproduct of the soy meal market. We’re also being impacted by corn oil, a byproduct of the ethanol and fructose industry. Thus, we need to help move these byproducts to non food uses,” says Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower Association.

One non-food use for soybean oil developing rapidly is biodiesel, the name for a variety of ester-based oxygenated fuels made from soybean oil, other vegetable oils or animal fats, all renewable and domestically produced resources. Much of the biodiesel market development effort is focused on using soy oil, and an analysis conducted by the USDA Economic Research Service estimates that 100 million gallons of biodiesel demand would increase soybean oil prices by 14%.

According to the National Biodiesel Board ( the concept of using vegetable oil as a fuel dates back to 1895, when Dr. Rudolf Diesel actually developed the first diesel engine to run on vegetable oil. Diesel demonstrated his engine at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 using peanut oil as fuel.

According to the NBB, biodiesel is the only alternative fuel that can be used safely and directly in any existing compression-ignition (diesel) engines with no major modifications. Biodegradable and nontoxic, biodiesel has similar properties to petroleum diesel fuel, and can be blended in any ratio with petroleum diesel fuel. Generally, the standard storage and handling procedures used for different grades of petroleum diesel can be used for biodiesel.

Biodiesel is registered as a fuel and fuel additive with the Environmental Protection Agency, and in May 2000, biodiesel became the first and only alternative fuel in the country to have successfully completed the EPA’s Tier I and Tier II Health Effects testing under Section 211(b) of the Clean Air Act. These programs include the most stringent emissions testing protocols ever required by EPA for certification of fuels or fuel additives in the U.S. Tier I testing conclusively demonstrated biodiesel’s significant reductions in most currently regulated emissions, as well as most unregulated emissions—especially those associated with cancer and lung disease. Tier II testing demonstrated biodiesel’s non-toxic effect on health.

The biodiesel supplier base is increasing: In 1996, there were two companies who were registered biodiesel suppliers. In 1999, there were 13 companies, and the number of inquiries for biodiesel manufacturing plants has skyrocketed since, according to the NBB.

Ford and Chrysler have begun biodiesel research initiatives, with Ford’s efforts being the most advanced, according to the NBB. Ford is conducting independent compatibility testing in anticipation of providing diesel engines certified to operate on biodiesel. Chrysler has included biodiesel in its compatibility specifications. Most major diesel engine manufacturers have affirmed that use of B20 (a mix of 20% biodiesel with 80% petroleum diesel) in their equipment will not void their warranty, and are actively working with industry on biodiesel research and development activities.

Biodiesel Users Increasing

Many federal and state fleet vehicles are already using biodiesel blends in their existing diesel engines, according to the NBB. In March 1999, three major fleets were known to be using B20. Now, it’s about 40, including the Ohio Department of Transportation, U.S. Postal Service, General Services Administration, Alabama Power and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Along with using B20 biodiesel to fuel equipment, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service is using “B5” blend (5% soy-based biodiesel and 95% heating oil) to heat a dozen of its buildings in Beltsville, MD, this winter. Europeans already use biodiesel for heating, and ARS says that if everyone in the Northeast used just the B-5 blend, it could save 50 million gallons of regular heating oil this winter.

Late 2000, the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command approved a Purchase Description (PD) for the procurement of biodiesel (B20). TACOM has the responsibility for development of ground fuel specifications for the military, which are then commonly adopted by large federal procurement agencies such as the Defense Energy Support Center and the General Services Administration.

“This eliminates one potential barrier for sales to the single largest diesel user in the country—the U.S. Government—and is a major step forward in the development of biodiesel use for military and Federal government procurement,” says Joe Jobe, the NBB’s executive director.

In Minnesota, there is a legislative effort underway to mandate the use of a 2-5% biodiesel blend in petroleum diesel statewide. “This looks like it could have a good chance of passing, which would be exciting, because it could set an example for other states,” says Jenna Higgins, NBB communications director. Other major biodiesel initiatives have recently passed in Arizona, Ohio, New Jersey, Delaware, and Iowa.

A new $300 million bioenergy program created under the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation could also provide a boost to the biodiesel industry. Under the program, USDA will make cash payments to bioenergy companies that increase their purchases of corn, soybeans and other commodities to expand production of biodiesel or other biofuels. (More information about the new program can be found on the web:

Unlike other alternative fuels, the biodiesel industry has never before received any significant governmental incentives to support its development, according to the NBB. While biodiesel is taxed the same way as petroleum diesel fuel, petroleum diesel has traditionally received more favorable tax treatment than biodiesel.

Legislative initiatives, state and national, are being considered to help biodiesel become price competitive with petroleum diesel. One factor that may help advance any federal legislation offering tax incentives for biodiesel development, according to one industry expert, is the fact that the new Republican chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which writes the nation’s tax laws, is Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the nation’s largest soybean producing state.

Also encouraging for biodiesel at the national level is a new rule announced in December by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), requiring that the sulfur content of diesel be reduced from its current level of 500 parts per million (ppm) to 15 ppm by the year 2006. The biodiesel industry is poised to provide a solution to a widely held concern about the lack of lubricity of low sulfur fuel.

Rotary and distributor type pumps commonly used in light and medium-duty trucks are completely fuel lubricated, which means they depend on fuel with high lubricating properties. The process of removing sulfur from petroleum diesel harms diesel's lubricity, but tests show blending just 1% biodiesel into petroleum diesel can increase lubricity by up to 65%.

“Although there are several lubricity-increasing fuel additives available in the marketplace, biodiesel is well positioned to fill the need,” says the NBB’s Jobe. “Because biodiesel is compatible with existing diesel technology, it can be used immediately and seamlessly as a clean-burning, no-sulfur alternative fuel or lubricity additive.”

The NBB says inclusion of biodiesel in on-road diesel fuel at a level of just 1% for lubricity purposes would result in 300 million gallons of biodiesel demand, the utilization of the oil from more than 214 million bushels of soybeans (over 2.2 billion pounds of soybean oil), and add a minimum of 30¢ to the value of a bushel of soybeans, based on economic analyses conducted by USDA-ERS and the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI).

The NBB will conduct a macroeconomic study next spring to quantify direct and secondary economic impacts, employment, balance of trade, and increased level of economic activity and corresponding state and local tax revenue that would result from increased biodiesel usage.

Future market dynamics show promise, says the NBB. Increasing pressure is being put on the petroleum industry to reduce sulfur levels in diesel fuel, as well as the amount of compounds in diesel exhaust which have the potential to cause cancer and lung disease. Furthermore, global warming and green house gases will continue to gain attention. Biodiesel provides benefits in all these areas, which will further increase the fuel’s economic competitiveness. Moreover, biodiesel offers big public and private transporters an immediate and “seamless” ability to transform their entire diesel fleet into a cleaner burning alternative fuel fleet, without any capital investment.

Since Diesel's time, the design of the diesel engine has been modified so it can run on the cheapest fuel available: petroleum "diesel" fuel. However, in 1912 Diesel said: “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time.” Sunflower doesn’t figure to be one of those vegetable oils used for engine fuels, but stands to benefit just the same, if the prophesy Dr. Diesel made about what fuels his invention holds true. – Tracy Sayler

Iowa farmer pleased with biodiesel performance

Last spring, when it came time to buy diesel for the farm equipment, Iowa soybean producers David Birchmeir and wife, Rhonda, requested soy-based biodiesel from a nearby supplier for their equipment fueling needs.

“We can't expect others to use soy-based biodiesel if we don't use it ourselves,” says Rhoda. “That goes for ethanol, too. We need to do what we can to help ourselves.” Thousands of gallons later, David is a satisfied customer.

“I haven't had any problems using the soy-based biodiesel,” says David. “In fact, it's been performing very well. It burns a lot cleaner than regular diesel, and costs just about the same. There's really no reason not to use it.”

David encourages other producers to talk to their local fuel suppliers about obtaining soy-based biodiesel. “We need more products like this,” he says. “It's important to add value to our commodity.”

Biodiesel can be made available anywhere in the U.S., and the National Biodiesel Board maintains a list of registered fuel marketers. You can start using a biodiesel blend in your operation. To find a supplier near you, contact the NBB,, or 1-800-841-5849. —Iowa Soybean Review

Biodiesel Facts

1. The concept of using vegetable oil as a fuel dates back to 1895, when Dr. Rudolf Diesel developed the first diesel engine to run on vegetable oil. Diesel demonstrated his engine at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 using peanut oil as fuel.

2. Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel that runs in any conventional, unmodified diesel engine. It can be stored anywhere that petroleum diesel fuel is stored.

3. Biodiesel can be used alone or mixed in any ratio with petroleum diesel fuel. The most common blend is a mix of 20% biodiesel with 80% petroleum diesel, or "B20." Pure 100% biodiesel is referred to as B100 or "neat" fuel.

4. Biodiesel significantly reduces carbon dioxide emissions, important since carbon dioxide contributes to the Greenhouse Effect. The low emissions of biodiesel make it an ideal fuel for use in marine areas, national parks and forests, and heavily polluted cities. Scientific research confirms that biodiesel exhaust has a less harmful impact on human health than petroleum diesel fuel.

5. Biodiesel is 11% oxygen by weight and contains no sulfur. The use of biodiesel can extend the life of diesel engines because it is more lubricating than petroleum diesel fuel, while fuel consumption, auto ignition, power output, and engine torque are relatively unaffected by biodiesel.

6. Biodiesel does have a solvent effect, which may release deposits accumulated on tank walls and pipes from previous petroleum diesel fuel storage. The release of deposits may clog filters initially, so precautions should be taken.

7. Biodiesel is safe to handle because it is as biodegradable as sugar, 10 times less toxic than table salt, and has a high flash point (ignition temperature) of about 300 F compared to petroleum diesel fuel, which has a flash point of 125 F. Thus, biodiesel is safer to transport.

8. Biodiesel is a proven fuel with over 30 million successful U.S. road miles, and over 20 years of use in Europe.

9. When burned in a diesel engine, biodiesel replaces the exhaust odor of petroleum diesel with the pleasant smell of popcorn or french fries.

10. Biodiesel can be made from domestically produced, renewable oilseed crops such as soybeans and other domestic crops, which reduces the United States’ dependence on foreign petroleum, increases agricultural revenue, and creates jobs.

(Source: National Biodiesel Board,

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