Is Biodiesel the Best Alternative Diesel Fuel?

April 6, 2012

Biodiesel is the reigning alternative diesel fuel, but how does it compare to other options? Learn about the strengths and limitations of biodiesel.

The Green Alternative

The alternative diesel fuel, "biodiesel," is a beneficial new concept that has been in the workings for a very long time. There are few drawbacks to converting to biofuel, and in the next 10 years we can expect to see biodiesel companies dominating the fuel market with their new product.

Availability

Biodiesel can be derived from many different local sources. A national switch to biofuel would decrease the level of international fuel trading and allow countries to produce a majority of their own fuel, working wonders for individual national economies and international relations. Biodiesel from algae indicates the sheer variety of sources from which countries can obtain biofuel—and remember that all of these sources are renewable.

Cleanliness

Biodiesel has passed every one of the toxicity tests that every new type of fuel must take before being sold to the public. The fumes and the fuel itself are completely non-harmful to the earth's surface. The process through which biodiesel is produced, known as transesterfication, involves the separation of glycerin from fats.

This assures that biodiesel is one hundred percent free of harmful substances such as ammonia, sulfur and other aromatics found in conventional petroleum.

Practicality

Biodiesel can be used in its pure form in diesel engines. Bioethanol, another form of biofuel, is a good example of this new fuel's wealth of uses as it can be mixed with standard gasoline to run any normal vehicle.

A History of Biodiesel Fuel

Biodiesel fuel has a longer history than one might think. Not long after the revolution of steam, E. Duffy, a chemist, and J. Patrick, also a chemist, were fascinated by the idea of using vegetable oil to make soap. Their initial experiments, in 1853, were designed to use transesterification for the manufacture of soap bars for the public, separating glycerin from the oil. In this case, the glycerin was the product and the volatile fuel oil was the byproduct.

Alternative to Steam

As steam engines were so large, cumbersome and possibly dangerous, while most engines were running on steam up until the late 1800s, engineers were concurrently working on more modern methods of fuel driven engines to replace them. On August 10th, 1893, Rudolf Diesel produced a compression ignition engine which ran on peanut oil. The diesel engine operated on a compression ignition system, as is still applicable today. The very first patent for a diesel engine was issued to Diesel that year, and from there, his name become synonymous with such an engine.

Ahead of Time

It could be argued that Rudolf Diesel was way ahead of his time. He was a futurist in that he realized very early on that the use of petroleum based oils would cause damage to the environment. In 1912 he said "the use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today but such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum." Now, those words have come back to the auto industry, owing to the importance of having to create a viable alternative to petroleum and fossil fuels.

A World at War

Between the 1920s and 1930s, work and research continued in the field of biodiesel production. Some issues arose around the high viscosity of vegetable oil. This resulted in atomization being poor and the overheating of engines. Work and research continued in various parts of the world during World War II, and countries like the United Kingdom, China, Japan, Portugal and Germany all had similar issues with the viscosity, but all could see the potential to create a biodiesel fuel which was less harmful to the environment.

Post War

After the war, petroleum based fuel took precedence over the production industry, and petrol and gasoline became the predominant forms of auto fuel. Biodiesel took a back seat for a number years but work carried on in the background. In 1996, the company Pacific Biodiesel spearheaded the use of recycled vegetable oils for fuel production. Since 2005, biodiesel has increased in production and could be the environmentally friendly way of operating vehicles in the future.

Why Aren't More Cars Running on Biodiesel and Biofuel Yet?

When it comes to biodiesel and biofuel, cars aren't readily available to use these new fuel types. There is no doubt that research and development for these technologies is growing. However, they are in the early stages of production and promotion, so not as many people know about new biofuel technology.

Engine Wear

Biodiesel runs on a conventional diesel engine, but there are some effects to that engine over time that may make people hesitant to use the new fuel. Some of these effects are corrosion, clogging of the fuel filters and degradation of the pumps and houses. This requires special filters and other upgraded engine parts.

Emissions

Biofuels produce fewer emissions than gasoline and diesel (petroleum based) fuels. But to produce some biofuels, a lot of heavy machinery is needed, and these machines conveniently run on gasoline and diesel. When you factor in the production, as well as the emissions, biofuels may create more total emissions than gasoline or diesel.

Efficiency

One other reason as to why biofuel is not used that much as of now is the fuel efficiency. These fuels are not yet as efficient as their gasoline or diesel counterparts, and many people today want the highest fuel efficiency possible.

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