Oil's Well that Ends Well

Bio Car- for the Grateful Web

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have dealt a one-two punch to the petroleum infrastructure in the Gulf states of Texas and Mississippi. Over 1 million barrels of daily oil production and over 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas remain offline in the Gulf, and to date, 10% of annual oil production and 7% of annual natural gas production have been lost (link).  Natural gas and home heating oil prices are expected to rise about 50% this winter.  Some analysts are now saying that $5/gallon gasoline is not beyond probability.

I'll go into home heating in another article, but for today, I'd like to focus on transportation.

What are you driving?  How many miles per gallon do you get?  Me, I drive a 1983 Mercedes sedan, and I get a modest 25 miles per gallon.  Now, I suppose you're saying to yourself, "If this guy is such an energy expert, why isn't he driving a Prius or an electric car?"  I would, but I can't afford to buy one.  Can you?  Yeah, I drive a big car, but I have a family, and besides, I don't use gasoline.  My car has a diesel engine, and I fuel it with biodiesel: diesel fuel made from vegetable oil.  Most companies that produce biodiesel now produce it from new soybean oil.  However, biodiesel can also be made from used cooking oil, such as might be obtained from the French fryer of a restaurant.

Currently, in several states, drivers of diesel engine vehicles can fill up at stations that sell biodiesel fuel, typically in blends with petroleum diesel (affectionately known as "dino-diesel") of either 20% or 99% biodiesel.  It costs a little more than dino-diesel (about 15 cents per gallon), and that's after a generous $1.00 per gallon tax credit that Congress included in a jobs bill it passed in October 2004.  (Occasionally, Congress does something good.)

So, if it costs more, why buy biodiesel?  There are a number of reasons:

1)      Environmental:  When I buy biodiesel, I know that it was made with a minimum of toxic chemicals, unlike refining petroleum which results in such a high level of solid, liquid and airborne pollutants, Southern Louisiana and Mississippi, home to several refineries, has been given the nickname "Toxic Alley".

2)      Political:  When I buy biodiesel, I'm supporting a locally-owned company that produces an agricultural-based product.  I'm not supporting a multi-national corporation that's responsible for putting the George W. Bush into the White House and sending our armed forces to Iraq.

3)      Mechanical:  The original diesel engine, designed by Otto Diesel (yes, really!), was designed to run on peanut oil.  Diesel engines run better and last longer on biodiesel.  When I first started using biodiesel, I used a 50-50 or 60-40 blend by filling up half the tank with dino-diesel and then topping it off with biodiesel.  If a car has run dino-diesel for a long time, burning biodiesel in it will start to clean out a lot of deposits from the engine and could clog up the oil filter.  My mechanic recommended changing the oil filter frequently at the beginning.  Once I had cleaned out a lot of the gunk, I could run straight biodiesel.

4)      Olfactory:  Maybe I'm weird, but I like driving around in a car whose exhaust smells like French fries.

5)      Futuristic:  So, how is driving a 22-year-old car that runs on refined vegetable oil futuristic?  World oil production has likely peaked, and every year after this one, we can expect to see less oil produced than the year before.  Meanwhile, global demand for oil is going up.   That means higher and higher prices.  But I can live quite nicely without petroleum fuel (admittedly, though not without other petroleum products such as engine oil and compact discs).  Long after my neighbor stops driving his Lincoln Navigator, I'll be driving my quaint biodiesel car.

6)      It's cool:  Musicians such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young have used biodiesel buses on recent concert tours.  Willie Nelson, and staunch biodiesel proponent, has invested in biodiesel projects, including a biodiesel production facility in Oregon and a biodiesel truck stop in South Carolina.

There are some biodiesel users who even make their own.  If they're really brave, they can make their own on the stove with household cookware and some barrels.  (see http://journeytoforever.org/biodiesel_make.html)   Some have purchased turnkey small-scale (though pricey) biodiesel production units, such as the "FuelMeister" sold by http://www.homebiodiesel.com

Biodiesel production requires lye or sulphuric acid as well as small amounts of methanol as a catalyst, which is toxic and must be handled carefully.  One nice thing about the turnkey systems is that you just mix everything together, and it does the rest, which reduces the hazardous nature of the chemicals.  The major byproduct of producing biodiesel is glycerin, which can be made into soap, though often I wonder just how much soap one person needs.  Then again, that person next to you in the crowded elevator probably could use more.

Presently, in most places, there are still ample sources of used vegetable oil to be found.  However, as petroleum becomes more expensive, more people will be seeking out sources of vegetable oil, and it could become a limited resource as well.  I would advise you to start now and talk the owners of your favorite restaurants to secure their goodwill and their oil.

What about that Prius?

One more thing, which may be obvious, but I've been asked it several times.  No, you CANNOT run your gasoline-powered car on biodiesel.  Gasoline and diesel are two completely different types of fuel, and they are not interchangeable.  So, you may not use biodiesel in your new Toyota Prius.  It seems to me that the ideal would be diesel-electric hybrid, but as yet, I am not aware of one available.  GM is working on a diesel-electric hybrid concept car, and I would suspect that other manufacturers are, too.  We'll just have to wait and see.  That is, if there's enough oil left to manufacture them.

My long-term recommendation:  walk, ride a bicycle, or take mass transit, and save your biodiesel car for only when you really need it.  That will help ensure an adequate supply of fuel for everyone.  Biodiesel will be an important piece of the puzzle of our dubious energy future, and any investment made into promoting biodiesel will most certainly pay off.

Daniel Sapon-Borson holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Energy Policy and Management.  When not driving his biodiesel Mercedes, he can be seen walking or bicycling around the streets of Eugene, OR.


Corn Image Thumbnail Credit: photographer Navin Sigamany  Navin Sigamany's Blogocentricity, Life online and in Chennai

Bio Car Image: Grateful Web hybrid using Storacar image

Related Links: VW Leads Automotive Pack with BioDiesel Research

10/12/2005: Denver Public Schools one of largest fleets in country to run on BioDiesel

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