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Biodiesel Revs Up Its Applications

March 3, 2011 - 3:41pm

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A presentation at the 2011 National Biodiesel Board's Conference and Expo

A presentation at the 2011 National Biodiesel Board's Conference and Expo

Transforming America’s transportation system to reduce our reliance on imported oil will strengthen our economy, our security and our environment. A number of solutions exist to help us break this dependence, including expanding our use of renewable fuels. I attended the National Biodiesel Board’s Conference and Expo in Phoenix, Arizona last week to find out more about how biodiesel can help the Department of Energy (DOE) accomplish its mission.

Biodiesel is a renewable fuel that can be produced from a variety of vegetable oils or animal fats, including soybean oil and waste grease. It is usually blended with diesel fuel, and the most common blends are B5 (5% biodiesel, 95% diesel) and B20 (20% biodiesel, 80% diesel). Both B5 and B20 that meet the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) quality standards can be used in almost any light or heavy-duty diesel vehicle without modifications. As biodiesel is generally produced from domestic sources, it increases America’s energy security. Biodiesel also generates fewer lifecycle smog-forming and greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum diesel, reducing air pollution and contributions to climate change. For all of these reasons, several Department of Energy programs, in concert with USDA and other Federal agencies, promote using biodiesel to help satisfy demand for transportation fuel.

From my perspective as part of Clean Cities in the Department's Vehicle Technologies Program, one of the best parts of the National Biodiesel Board’s conference was hearing about the creative ways transportation fleets use biodiesel. For example, Disneyland’s director of environmental affairs and conservation described how the park is reprocessing its cooking oil into biodiesel, and using a B98 blend to operate its steam trains and riverboat. Using biodiesel, they’re displacing about 200,000 gallons of petroleum diesel fuel a year! Similarly, in managing its green space, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is using biodiesel blends in their maintenance machinery. With the help of Clean Cities’ New York City and Lower Hudson Valley Clean Communities coalition, the Department of Parks and Recreation is working with NYC’s Department of Sanitation to run new hybrid diesel trucks on B20. Introducing me to some applications I had never even thought of, the biofuels manager for the Hawaiian Electric Company explained that Hawaii is currently dependent on burning oil for electricity. Now, they've started using biodiesel to provide a steady, renewable source of electricity that complements more variable sources like wind and solar.

The next day, thanks to the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix) Clean Cities coalition, I had the opportunity to see some biodiesel projects for myself. On a local tour, we saw several links of the biodiesel supply chain, from towering tanks at biodiesel terminals to firetrucks that use B20. The outing reminded me that even if there were plenty of waste greases, algal sources or oil seeds to process cost-effectively, it will be more difficult for consumers to access biodiesel unless sufficient storage, transportation and blending facilities are available. To address this challenge, Clean Cities works closely with industry and other stakeholders to ensure that biofuels can succeed every step of the way, from research and development to use.

Attending this conference helped me think about how and why people use biodiesel and how we can help them do so more effectively. As a fuel that can complement advanced technologies such as hybridization, biodiesel can be a valuable resource in our toolbox of transportation solutions.

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