The Future of Fuel, Part II...


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According to the latest government reports, consumers last year spent $250 billion filling their cars, trucks, and sport utilities with gasoline. That averages to nearly $700 million each day or $500,000 per minute. Unfortunately, these same reports predict these staggering numbers are on their way up, not down.

This alarming trend of runaway oil costs, though, is triggering what could be both a saving grace for our wallets and our planet: the drive towards alternative fuels. Whereas environmental concerns have always caused a buzz of protest against fossil fuels, economic and security concerns are turning that buzz into an outcry. As stated in our previous report on ethanol, finding a viable alternative source of fuel has become this generation’s greatest challenge.

It could also be our greatest accomplishment, and one such alternative fuel vying for the crown of planetary savior is biodiesel. As 2005’s fastest-growing source of energy, biodiesel is gaining momentum as the heir apparent to oil and its derivatives. Developed from natural sources such as vegetable and seed oils, biodiesel is both renewable and clean, and has a higher “energy balance” than any other known fuel source (but more on that later).

Biodiesel is created through “transesterification” – a process that can basically be described as a replacement of the alcohol content of a compound with a different, catalyzed alcohol. This process, more complicated on paper than in practice, creates two viable products – biodiesel itself and fatty acids used for commodities like soap. Transesterification was first accomplished in 1853.

The first use of biodiesel as a fuel dates back to the invention of the diesel engine itself, which initially ran on modified peanut oil. Soon, though, petroleum-based diesel fuel became cheaper and easier to produce and biodiesel dwindled to an afterthought until the Second World War, when it powered heavy equipment trucks in remote regions that needed to locally source their fuel.

Biodiesel again found itself in obscurity as an energy source until the 1980s, when the environmental impact of fossil fuels became identifiable. Starting with local farmers, biodiesel gained a groundswell of support both at home and abroad. Since most European engines are already diesel-powered, several EU member nations mix at least 5% biodiesel into their pumps and are experimenting with 30% and 50% blends.

To accommodate this new demand, nations such as Austria and Sweden have led the charge in building biodiesel plants for mass-production. Currently, twenty-one nations across the globe produce biodiesel in one form or another. But what would be the environmental impact of a shift to this new fuel?

In its purest form, biodiesel has almost 80% less carbon dioxide emissions that regular gasoline and produces about half the carbon monoxide. In addition to the atmospheric benefit to our planet, biodiesel can improve our health as well. That’s because it emits far fewer particulates (aerosols or other solid material suspended within a gas) that are known to increase the risk of cancer. And because biodiesel comes from plant and seed oils, it is both non-toxic and biodegradable.

This brings us to the issue of energy balance. Many fuels such as ethanol and hydrogen are great sources of energy, but how much energy is required to produce these sources? For some, energy is actually lost in the process, completely negating any positive benefits of the new energy source. In contrast, biodiesel creates over three times the energy it takes to produce.

As with other energy sources, though, the major hurdle to overcome is the production scale. For a complete conversion to biodiesel in our engines and in our homes, it is estimated that we would need a soybean field twice the size of the United States. However, research into other sources than soybeans (such as seed oils and algae) will make production far more efficient. Most likely, it will take a combination of resources to attain a supply that can match our current demand.

If we can find a way to make biodiesel for everyone without sowing seeds in their yards, it just might be the answer to our energy crisis. Perhaps the best indicator that biodiesel is in our future is its addition to this year’s Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Though its definition might be an energy source “similar to diesel fuel that is usually derived from vegetable sources, ” it could live up to so much more than that.

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