Biodiesel: A Greener Alternative To Diesel

While efficient shared transportation networks are a big piece of solving Earth’s current climate crisis, the fuel that powers these networks, diesel, should be closely examined and improved as well.

The good news is: we already have viable solutions that can significantly reduce these network’s emissions footprint: biodiesel.

In this article we’ll learn about what the history and composition of diesel fuel, how it’s different from gasoline, and how affects the environment. We’ll also learn about an environmentally friendlier alternative biodiesel, how it’s made, and how transportation companies like yours are making the successful switch.

Diesel Fuel History

Diesel fuel is a type of motor vehicle fuel that has been in use for more than one hundred and fifty years. It was originally known as “diesel oil” or “petroleum diesel” because it is made from petroleum, but these terms are now usually only used outside the United States. In the United States, diesel fuel is officially called “distillate”.

Diesel engines have been around since Rudolf Diesel designed his first engine in 1892. This design was not successful so he tried again with another design which was an early example of turbo-charging. He patented this second design in 1893 and after various refinements to the original 1892 design, he built his third engine, which had its first run on February 14, 1897 in Cologne, Germany.

Diesel fuel is made by distilling crude oil with heat and sometimes pressure in the absence of oxygen. The distillation process separates components in the crude petroleum including gas, gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene and diesel fuel.

Differences From Petrol

Diesel fuel is a fossil fuel like gasoline (petrol) that is processed from crude oil and is one of the most widely used energy sources for automobiles. Diesel fuel is different than regular gasoline in a number of ways. Unlike gasoline, Diesel is classified as a “combustible” material, which compared to a “flammable” rating on gasoline, it is much less volatile, and will not burn under nominal ambient conditions.

A diesel engine needs to compress the fuel air mix to get it to the state in which it can burn. From an efficiency perspective diesel fuel contains about 17-18% percent more potential energy than gasoline, and several times more power – especially at lower engine speeds. These dynamics make it a better choice for larger trucks and heavy equipment.

Environmental Concerns

While somewhat cleaner and more efficient than standard gasoline, diesel fuel is no-less harmful to the environment because it emits high levels of smog-forming pollutants, including nitrogen oxides and particulate matter contributing greatly to climate change.

In fact, according to the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2020, diesel fuel use in the U.S. transportation sector resulted in the emission of around 432 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas. In 2020, CO2 emissions from transportation in the United States will be roughly equal to 26 percent of all U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions and 9% of total CO2 emissions from the sector as a whole.

Diesel Health Issues

Diesel pollutants can cause serious health problems, such as asthma and respiratory illnesses and have shown to cause litany of other problems, affecting nearly every system in our body including cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, and gastronomical issues.

In a long running study in Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, it was found that diesel fumes increased the risk of colorectal cancer. Researchers examined a variety of factors, such as diet, smoking status, and socioeconomic status, to acquire data from 181,709 colon cancer cases and 109,227 rectal cancer patients diagnosed between 1961 and 2005. Participants were also asked about their experiences of living or working near major roads to get an understanding of their exposure to traffic-related air pollution.

The study also found that people who had been exposed to the highest levels of diesel fumes were almost twice as likely to have bowel cancer compared with those in the lowest category.

Biodiesel Fuel: A Sustainable Solution

As a viable environmentally friendlier alternative to dirty diesel, biodiesel is a cleaner-burning fuel produced from renewable plant and animal resources.

Biodiesel emits up to 90% less particulate matter, up to 50% less carbon monoxide and up to 80% less hydrocarbons as compared to standard diesel fuel. According to the U.S. Department of Energy , burning biodiesel can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% over the lifespan of the fuel, and when combined with proper engine maintenance, can lower harmful emissions from diesel engines by 20-40%.

In addition to cleaner skies, biodiesel in its raw form is far less harmful to the groundwater than petroleum diesel when spilled or discharged and far less combustible than petroleum diesel as well. Biodiesel has a higher flashpoint (temperature at which fuel begins to catch fire) of more than 130°C, whereas petroleum diesel has a flashpoint of 53°C making transportation much less risky.

Reduce Toxicity

Biodiesel has also demonstrated reduced toxicity to human health and the environment. The previously mentioned study by the National Cancer Institute found that those exposed to biodiesel were 2.2 times less likely to develop colorectal cancer. B100 Biodiesel is also virtually non-toxic, making it significantly safer than traditional diesel fuel.

World Wide Usage

Biodiesel has been on the rise as a viable alternative to diesel fuel in recent years with in order to support their emission reduction commitments for the coming years. Countries, including France Germany , China and Sweden have already implemented or are in the process of implementing policies that encourage the use of biodiesel in public transportation systems.

Unfortunately, domestically produced biodiesel is not all created equal. There are two types of biofuels: first-generation biofuels (1G) which includes corn biodiesel, and second-generation biofuels (2G) which includes soybean or camelina oil biodiesel.

While 1G have been found to produce greater emissions than those from diesel engines , 2G biodiesel has a significantly lower impact on the environment as compared to traditional petroleum diesel. In fact, a study conducted by Argonne National Laboratory  found that 2G biodiesel reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 20 to 49% when compared to diesel.

2G biodiesel is also more efficient than 1G biodiesel, requiring 13% less fossil energy , which means increased fuel economy and reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Fortunately, both first-generation and second-generation biodiesel fuel can be used in any diesel engine without requiring major modifications to the engine.

Other countries have also produced biofuels from used cooking oil, animal fat or recycled greases. Although the technology to produce biofuel for transportation purposes has existed in some form since the early 20th century, widespread use of biodiesel fuel only began in Europe in the 1990’s due largely to an increased awareness about environmentally friendly fuels following both European Union (EU) and German government mandates helping to reduce their dependence on foreign oil sources.

Burning Used Cooking Oil In Your Diesel Engine

Although unconventional, sourcing recycled cooking oil is one of the most beneficial methods reduce harmful emissions while yourself or your business money. Derived from the leftover oils and greases at your local Chinese restaurants, burger joints, and fish fries, old cooking oil is easily collected in large vats which are then readily converted into biodiesel. While a typical diesel engine can run off of filtered cooking oil that’s been filtered to 5 microns or less, there are some additional processing to make it less viscous with less water and impurities.

How It Works

Used vegetable oil is first heated to remove any water contained within, and then purged of free fatty acids with an alcohol called “transesterification” which attaches the glycerin portion from the alcohol to the free fatty acids. The end result is a cleaner burning biodiesel and a glycerin by-product.

Other than this additional step (and extensive filtering), converting used cooking oil into biodiesel is pretty straightforward for any do-it-yourselfer. Those who plan on using it as transportation fuel will need to go through an approval process with the EPA to determine if their engine is suitable for burning the biofuel.

Since vegetable oil is less viscous than petroleum diesel, many biodiesel processors will also blend it with petroleum diesel to make it run more smoothly through the engine; however, to power an automobile using pure filtered cooking oil as fuel you can expect to pay around $5.

Here’s a great video on the process of filtering used vegetable oil for diesel use…

Once processed, vegetable oil is significantly cleaner when it comes to hydrocarbons and Carbon Dioxide, however Nitrous Oxide emission are slightly higher than standard diesel fuel. Another environmental consideration is that the used cooking oil you’ll be using in your trucks will be consuming used oil that would have had to have been disposed of anyway.

Transportation Businesses Making The Switch

There are a number of businesses that have made the switch to biodiesel for their trucking fleets. One example is Walmart, which has made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 18% by 2025. In order to do this, the company has made a number of changes, including converting its trucking fleet to run on biodiesel.

Another business that has made the switch to biodiesel is UPS. The company has been using biodiesel in its trucking fleet for more than a decade. In fact, UPS was the first company to introduce biodiesel into the commercial transportation market.

Smaller business too have made the switch to biodiesel. One example is a Long Island-based business called Carrotmob , which has been using a mixture of biodiesel and petroleum diesel for its fleet. Another is Clockwork Towing Company, a Kansas City-based Towing Service which has converted all of it’s flatbed tow trucks, and wreckers to run on straight diesel by installing a secondary tank for B100 fuel usage.

“We’ve found a nearby provider of high-quality, filtered cooking oil, who in turn works with restaurants in the area for a consistent supply of fuel for our trucks.” Says owner Sal Schwenck, “It saves us money, and I feel like we’re doing some good for the air quality as well. We also use blended fuels provided at the gas station if needed.”

Where Do I Find Biodiesel?

There are more than 700 stations that offer biodiesel in the U.S. Although somewhat difficult to locate outside of the Midwest United States, Biodiesel fueling stations are becoming more and more available. Check out the Alternative Fuels Data Center from the U.S. Department of Energy to locate one nearest you.

Usually sold in blends containing a mix of bio and regular diesel, such as B5, which is 5 percent biodiesel and 95-percent petroleum diesel, and B20, or 20 percent bio diesel.

About Us

Progress-Project is a US-Based Non-Profit Organization focused on organizing communities and policy-makers to ensure that environmentally friendly alternatives to car travel are in place, and that the public transport tariff structures and payment systems are complementary to those currently being used or planned for funding road infrastructure.