An introduction to Biodiesel

There is no such thing as a biodiesel conversion. Biodiesel Pump

I found that phrase scrawled across the wall of the bathroom of a bohemian college coffee house.  It wasn’t hard to track down the person responsible;  A biodiesel awareness group met there every week and I did a bit of asking around.  Like many people when I heard the word “Biodiesel” I thought of those guys I’d seen on TV who drove around picking up used grease from all the fast food restaurants and dumped it into specially modified cars with all kinds of line heaters and special filters and tanks and all manner of mad scientist add-ons.  Apparently I was mistaken, like most people, and it was time for an education.

The diesel engine was invented in the closing days of the 19th century to replace the steam engine in industrial applications.  They were designed to run of a variety of fuels from coal dust to peanut oil but until recently were primarily run off fossil fuels.  But the combination of rising fuel costs with environmental concerns, political concerns, and the availability of 80’s era diesel powered autos at prices that encourage experimentation has brought about some interesting fuel options.

The three major alternative fuels for consumer diesel engines are:

  • SVO: Standard vegetable oil. Just what it sounds like, you just run off of straight veggie oil like you use to cook with.

  • WVO: This is what most people incorrectly call biodiesel. Basically you take oil straight from a restaurant and filter it.

  • Biodiesel: This is plant based oil, usually soybean oil, which is processed to be used as a direct replacement for petroleum diesel.



SVO and WVO require modifications to be made to the vehicle in before it can reliably be used as a replacement for conventional diesel.  WVO has to be carefully filtered and there are contaminates that can escape filtering and can cause some rather severe damage to rather expensive parts.  In addition it tends to solidify so the fuel lines have to be heated to keep it flowing properly.  All in all it requires more dedication to do it right than most people are willing or able to provide.  It wasn’t for me in any case.

filling

Biodiesel is a different story entirely.  There only four things to keep in mind when switching your vehicle to biodiesel.

  • Biodiesel is a solvent: When you run your first tank full of biodiesel it will go to work dissolving all of the gunk built up in your fuel tank, your fuel lines, and your injectors over the years. While this is a good thing, for the most part, it means that your fuel filters are going to be catching a whole lot of debris the first few tanks. If you don’t know how to change your own filters, this can run into some labor costs, and even if you do your own maintenance it means carrying around a few tools and spare filters.

  • Rubber Lines: The rubber fuel lines used in old cars are susceptible to the same solvent problems that I mentioned above. Over time when exposed to biodiesel they may break down and begin to leak. You can either replace them all, or just keep an eye out for any seepage for a while. My vintage Mercedes has been running on biodiesel for some time now and has never had a problem with the lines. Other people report problems within a few miles. To be safe, perhaps it is best just to replace all the lines.

  • Efficiency: Biodiesel contains less energy than petroleum diesel. That means that you will get slightly worse mileage, and also you may notice a slight drop in power. Since a diesel already gets as much as 40 percent better mileage than a gas motor its not that big of an issue, and honestly; If I was looking for performance I wouldn’t be driving a diesel.

  • Availability: This can be a deal killer for many people. Some cities have multiple outlets where biodiesel is readily available. Some have none.

So checking off the above list, I had no problem with changing filters, lower mileage, loss of performance, or replacing fuel lines.  All that was left was to find the stuff.

price signA quick Google search revealed only one retailer in my city; and it revealed a different decision to make.  Biodiesel is sold in different blends with petroleum diesel.  When you see B20, that means the fuel contains twenty percent bio, and 80 percent petroleum.  With B100, you get all bio and no petroleum.  In reality, most B100 is really B99.9.  A small percentage of petroleum is blended in because our government in their infinite wisdom gives a tax break for petroleum with bio added, but not for just plain bio.  The end result is adding a tiny amount of petroleum to B100 results in a significant savings to the provider.  Most of the sources I consulted recommended starting out with something like B20; Once your system is all cleaned out and you’ve gone through a few filter changes then you switch over to the pure stuff.

Depending on the market for biodiesel in your area your first trip to the biodiesel fuel seller may result in a bit of a culture shock.  While many retailers are simply normal fuel stations (you have to get used to not calling them gas stations) with a  biodiesel pump on the island along side the regular gas pumps, the one in my city bore a closer resemblance to something out of a post apocalyptic action thriller.

DFW Biodiesel

Above ground tanks were scattered about a lot in a predominately industrial area with fuel trucks parked prominently displaying DFW Biodiesel on their tanks.  A small unoccupied booth sat between two functional but antique looking pumps.  Beside the empty booth a lone terminal stood with a credit card slot and a display.  From this out of place looking island of technology you swipe your card, select which pump you wish to use (B20 or B100), and then by following the faded instruction sheet you fuel your vehicle.  I personally found I didn’t really miss the aisles of soda, candy, and cell phone accessories.  In the entire time I have purchased fuel from them I have yet to see anyone working there, and that is ok with me.  There is a certain do it yourself mentality that comes with using biodiesel; it’s certainly not for everyone…not yet anyway.

So, why go with biodiesel?  First of all, the environment.  Biodiesel produces 60 percent less carbon dioxide than regular diesel, It’s non toxic , and best of all it is available most places right now.  At some point I sincerely hope to see the day that we are driving primarily electric vehicles using power produced by solar and wind but that’s not today, it’s not tomorrow, and it is not next year.  Your average working person can’t afford a new electric car but many people can afford an older diesel Mercedes or Volkswagen.  Sometimes you have to take what you can get until you can get what you want.

terminalSecond, biodiesel extends engine life because of its cleaning properties and its superior lubrication properties.  I can tell the difference by the sound my engine makes when I run regular diesel.  It runs much quieter on biodiesel.

Third, I have to admit there is political element.  To me we have a choice of purchasing fuel from countries with a very questionable human rights history, or purchasing our fuel from our own farmers.  While biodiesel will not replace petroleum in its entirety by any means, every drop of biodiesel we use is that much less we have to import with all the nastiness that goes along with it.  I don’t know how much of a difference it makes in the grand scheme of things, but doing something is better than nothing.

You will notice that the above does not include saving money.  You won’t save money by switching to biodiesel.  At the present time in my area it is priced a few cents less than regular diesel.  Given the extra distance I have to drive to get it and the decreased economy I’m not saving any money.  Occasionally depending on the price of oil Biodiesel will actually be a few cents more.  Some things are just worth doing because they are the right thing to do.