Biodiesel and Ethanol

Biodiesel: No Longer a Fringe Fuel

March 2009, Green Fleet Magazine - Feature

by Sean Lyden - Also by this author


In December 2007, waste collection and recycling company Allied Waste, Inc. of San Mateo County, Calif., converted its entire 225-vehicle diesel fleet to B-20 (a blend of 20-percent biodiesel with 80-percent ultra low sulfur diesel). 

"From an environmental perspective, it was the right thing to do," recalls Evan Boyd, Allied Waste general manager. "From a cost perspective, it was kind of a cost-neutral situation. And from a maintenance and performance perspective, it was going to have a limited or no impact. So our overarching conclusion was yes, it's the right thing to do." 

Allied's fleet maintenance staff, however, posed some initial concerns. "They heard horror stories of fuel filters clogging more often, with concerns the quality of the fuel would be lower standard than you would see with ultra low sulfur diesel," says Boyd. 

Allied Waste had already successfully implemented biodiesel programs at some of its other facilities, so Boyd referred to real-world performance data to alleviate maintenance concerns. 

"Our approach was essentially, 'Hey, what do we have to lose? Let's just get started [using biodiesel], and if there are any issues, there's nothing that says we can't go back,' " says Boyd. "We haven't experienced any issues; it's been a fairly smooth transition." 

No Longer a Fringe Fuel

Allied Waste of San Mateo County is just one of a growing number of fleets operating with biodiesel in some form, including all four branches of the U.S. armed forces, the U.S. Postal Service, several public transit systems, municipalities, and private fleets, including Safeway, Universal Studios, and United Parcel Service (UPS). 

According to the National Biodiesel Board (NBB), a leading industry trade association, biodiesel production has grown from 500,000 gallons annually in 1999 to 700 million gallons in 2008, a staggering 1,400-fold increase over 10 years. 

While 700 million gallons represents a small percentage of the overall 60-billion gallon U.S. diesel market, the steep growth trajectory suggests biodiesel is no longer a fringe fuel, but a rapidly expanding alternative to petroleum-based fuel. 

So, what exactly is biodiesel? What motivates diesel fleets to make the conversion? What market factors are driving biodiesel's expansion? What concerns and potential issues with biodiesel should fleet managers be aware of before making the switch? This article provides a guide to the information and resources needed to evaluate biodiesel use in a particular fleet. 

Biodiesel Defined

Biodiesel is a clean-burning alternative renewable fuel produced from vegetable oils (such as soybeans), animal fats, and yellow grease (recycled cooking oil from restaurants.) The term "biodiesel" technically refers to the pure fuel (100-percent biodiesel or B-100) before blending with diesel fuel. 

"Biodiesel blends" are labeled in terms of percent biodiesel. For example, B-5 is a blend of 5-percent biodiesel- and 95-percent diesel, B-20 (20-percent biodiesel and 80-percent diesel), B-40 (40-percent biodiesel, 60-percent diesel), and so forth. 

Biodiesel is produced through a chemical process called transesterification, which separates glycerin from the fat or vegetable oil, creating two by-products - methyl esters (the chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerin (usually sold for use in soaps and other products). 

Pure biodiesel is biodegradable, nontoxic, and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics. 

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