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“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 products of the present time.”
That quote may seem like it came out of a recent environmentalist summit at some prestigious research university, in the wake of rising oil prices and unrest in the Middle East. Ironically, Dr. Rudolf Diesel himself, who ran his prototype engine at the 1912 Paris World Exhibition on peanut oil, spoke those words more than 90 years ago.Likewise, the concerns about America’s dependence on imported oil were voiced as early as 1948, showing that many of the energy-related issues staring us in the face today have been looming for 50 years or more. These issues that have been swept under the rug for so long have now become too big to ignore, and once obscure and forgotten research into alternative fuels has come to the forefront.
It’s no secret that modern turbodiesels are the natural choice for fullsize truck enthusiasts that want to get some serious power and performance out of their rigs. But, could they also be the choice for those wanting to make an environmental statement? Although the image of custom diesel truck owners wearing tie-dye T-shirts and Birkenstocks may seem strange, in many ways this passionate group of enthusiasts may share some common ground with environmentalists.
Although the basic design of the diesel engine has been around for more than 100 years, it has only recently established itself as a high-tech, high-efficiency engine option. Though diesel engines are a popular option with heavy-duty pickups in the U.S., the overall market penetration still stands in the single-digits, around 3 to 4 percent among U.S. auto sales, compared to 30 to 40 percent or more in Europe.
The reasons the diesel hasn’t been more widely accepted in the U.S. are threefold. In the early to mid-’80s, just in the wake of the fuel crisis, diesel emissions were unregulated, resulting in smoky, smelly exhaust, and little, if any, incentive to improve cleanliness of the engines. At the same time, the diesel engines hastily rushed to market in the early ’80s by some manufacturers quickly became notorious for their poor reliability, turning tens of thousands of Americans off to the notion of owning a diesel ever again. Thirdly, and most pertinent to today, the regulatory environment for diesels in the United States has been a constantly evolving landscape, with the California Air Resources Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ever-tightening standards and refusal to compromise on particulate or NOx standards, long the Achille’s heel of diesels.
But, all hope is not lost for diesels in the U.S. Thanks to recent attention being paid as much to the fuel going into the engines as the emissions coming out, diesels have the potential to become a more practical and economical solution in the next several years than even hybrids or fuel cells. Here, we’ll look at several alternative diesel fuel technologies on the horizon. Some of which you can pull up to a pump and fill your tank with today, and others that you may be seeing within the next few years.
SunDiesel: From Trash to Treasure
When many people think of alternative diesel fuels, the most common example is soy-based biodiesel, thanks to a powerful agricultural lobby, and a rapidly developing, though still small, production and distribution infrastructure for the vegetable-based fuel product. But, traditional biodiesel is not the only source for plant-based diesel fuel. In a joint venture between DaimlerChrysler and Volkswagen with Choren Industries, a German energy company, a fuel production and distillation process has been developed, known as BTL (biomass-to-liquid) synthesis, to produce diesel fuel. This process allows fuel to be distilled from forest waste, using wood that would otherwise be too defective or diseased to be used for lumber or other forest products, and would otherwise be unusable waste. Though this may seem cutting-edge, the basic chemical process, known as the Fischer-Tropsch process, has been around for nearly 80 years.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. During World War II, the Germans had the foresight to realize that continued dependence on oil-based energy would be a precarious situation as the war continued. Germany had abundant coal but little petroleum. Research into the Fischer-Tropsch process was given top billing. The process allowed for the production of fuel from any carbon-based feedstock, including plant or coal sources. Though more expensive to process than traditional petroleum-based fuels with technology at the time, it gave them some measure of reassurance with their energy strategy. The Allies ultimately prevailed, but interest in synthetic fuels by the Allies continued, although at a small-scale level. Little-known legislation introduced by Wyoming Senator Joseph O’Mahoney in 1944 called for the construction of plants for research and development of synthetic fuels. As early as 1948, concerns arose that the U.S. was becoming increasingly dependent on imported oil.
Loren Beard, Senior Manager of Environmental and Energy Planning at DaimlerChrysler, gives a glimpse into the environmental potential the Fischer-Tropsch method holds. “If you use forest waste or some sort of crop, the process becomes carbon-dioxide neutral. All the carbon dioxide that you produce when you burn the fuel goes back into growing the plants that you got it from, that you would otherwise have to take to a landfill or dispose of elsewhere,” he explained. And, unlike traditional biodiesel, which requires harvesting of a virgin crop for processing, Fischer-Tropsch doesn’t distinguish between virgin or waste sources, opening up a variety of environmentally beneficial opportunities. “There’s a disease that’s killing a lot of the trees in the Pacific Northwest. They are a huge fire hazard and are really a nuisance right now. The government is looking at billions of dollars to dispose of them. A concept we’ve been looking at would be to build plants close to where the trees are, allowing the trees to be cut down and processed into diesel fuel right there,” Beard said.
Although much attention has been paid to biodiesel lately, there are some issues in integrating it into the existing fuel infrastructure. According to Beard, BTL diesel is much more adaptable into the conventional diesel infrastructure than high-concentration biodiesel. “Biodiesel takes vegetable oil and processes it to a monoester of triglyceride oil, which doesn’t look like conventional diesel, chemically, whereas BTL diesel is very similar to petrodiesel chemically but embodies the very best properties of it,” he said. “It’s sulfur-free and very low in aromatics, which is a precursor to soot or particulates.”There are some minor issues with BTL diesel in terms of flow and lubricity, but Beard said these are easily overcome with additional processing. An ongoing issue with biodiesel has been its susceptibility to algae growth, which doesn’t affect BTL diesel, but like biodiesel, the cold-flow properties of pure BTL diesel aren’t ideal. “BTL, as it comes out of the plant, doesn’t have any problem with algae growth, but it does have pretty poor cold-flow characteristics. But, this can be fixed with additives or a refining process called isomerization.”
The convergence of BTL and biodiesel into a blended fuel is also a likely possibility, according to Beard. “If you add two percent biodiesel to BTL, it brings up the lubricity to a point comparable to conventional diesel. We’re starting to see 2 to 5 percent biodiesel blends right now, and I imagine this is going to be the trend moving forward,” he said.
BioWillie: Star Power for Your Truck
It was an unlikely meeting of two biodiesel enthusiasts that led to the marketing genius behind BioWillie biodiesel. As his tour bus was driving through Dallas, Willie Nelson contacted Peter Bell, CEO of Distribution Drive, a biodiesel producer and distributor in North Texas. As a native of South Africa, Bell didn’t immediately realize the significance of the call. However, his native-Texan associates certainly did, and shortly after refueling his tour bus, the two started negotiations on a possible business venture. “That’s when the light bulb went on for me that Willie Nelson would be an fantastic figurehead for biodiesel, and transition it from being primarily a niche fuel for fleets, government, and the military, and move it more into the mainstream,” Bell said. “We got together initially in January and completed a deal in May, and we’ve been marketing the heck out of it.”
Although Bell’s company produces a variety of vegetable oil-based products, including straight vegetable oil (SVO) diesel, and Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) diesel, using these products in the existing diesel fuel distribution and storage infrastructure could present some difficulties, as pure vegetable diesel has a higher gel point, and is more susceptible to algae infestation. For the time being, Bell believes B20 is the most practical blend for current diesel users and retailers. “B20 is a fuel that has been tested a great deal and is in extensive use in many applications,” he said. “The beauty of B20 is because it’s not in such a concentrated form as B100, it doesn’t react with any of the rubber hoses in the fuel pump or the vehicle’s fuel system. For a retailer to switch over, it’s really just a matter of changing the stickers on the pump.”
Though distribution of the fuel originated in Texas, it is starting to become available at selected outlets around the country. “We just recently opened in South Carolina, and we will be opening in other states as we slowly roll out the program,” Bell said.
However, the most significant expansion in the distribution of BioWillie may be just around the corner.DistributionDrive recently approached Love’s Truck Stops about distributing the fuel, and Bell said that the venture’s future looks bright. “We’re very close with Love’s. If Love’s comes out with this offering, it will bring biodiesel into the mainstream for the first time. They are one of the major players in the truck-stop industry.”
The Seeds of Change: Blue Sun Biodiesel Shows the Virtues of Canola Biodiesel
Many of us have heard of Canola oil. If you haven’t heard of it specifically, you’ve more than likely heard of Crisco, the well-known cooking oil and shortening brand of the J.M. Smucker company, made most famous by its Smucker’s fruit preserves. Though very versatile as a cooking oil, it may prove to be just as valuable as a key feedstock crop for biodiesel. And lest you think Canola is just an obscure greenie fuel being used by eccentric graying hippies driving 25-year-old Peugeot and Rabbit diesels plastered with environmental-activist bumper stickers, consider that the world’s quickest diesel down the quarter-mile, running 7.98 seconds at 167.43 mph, runs on straight Canola-based B100 biodiesel, supplied by Blue Sun Biodiesel.
According to Jeff Probst, CEO of Blue Sun, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, canola has several advantages over soy-based biodiesel. “Based on our research and testing, Canola will produce a better fuel in terms of cetane, cold flow, oxidative stability, and lubricity than conventional soy biodiesel,” he said. Blue Sun currently uses soy biodiesel as part of its blend, but is moving toward making Canola the primary and ultimately exclusive source of its biodiesel. Although Blue Sun is available primarilyin Colorado and surrounding states at the moment, the distribution of the fuel is growing steadily. “We are in Utah, Idaho, and New Mexico right now. The next states coming on stream include Wyoming, Nebraska, and Arizona,” Probst said. As production and infrastructure develop to facilitate, Probst said he would eventually like to go nationwide with the Blue Sun brand.
Although there are many advantages to using biodiesel, according to Probst, he said the enthusiast can feel good not only about contributing to a cleaner environment, but also supporting the American farmer. “Enthusiast fuel dollars are kept in the local communities and with our farmers, instead of foreign countries,” he said.