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March 21, 2005

Grease Is The Word

Biodiesel sure gets great press:  see here, here, here, and here for stories from the Northwest over the past few days (courtesy of Tidepool).

To recap:  biodiesel is a petroleum substitute made from plant oils or animal fats, and that generally burns more cleanly than petroleum diesel. It's fairly easy to modify ordinary diesel vehicles so that they can run on biodiesel; you just have to replace a few hoses.  And to add to biodiesel's cachet, much of what's sold right now is made from recycled cooking oil, such as fryer grease, that's collected and processed by local entrepeneurs. 

What could be better--you get the benefits of cleaner air, less petroleum, lower CO2 emissions, reduced waste, and support for local businesses, all in one tank.

But the last of the articles above, from the Humboldt, California Times-Standard, also contains hints of why we should be cautious about the prospects for biodiesel from waste oil.  The county's main biodiesel producer, Footprint Recycling, produces about 2,500 gallons of biodiesel per month.  And the main proprietor, Andrew Cooper, estimates that they have access to about 50% of the county's waste oil, and would like to get his hands on more.

But Humboldt county has about 130,000 residents, and if they consume gasoline at the state average, they use a total of roughly  4.4 million gallons of gasoline per month.  That means that, even if Footprint Recycling could get its hands on all of the used fryer grease in the county, the company would still supply less than 0.2% of the county's transportation fuel needs.

This isn't a strike against biodiesel. Far from it -- I think that biodiesel from waste oil probably has an important niche in the Northwest's energy system.  But it's important to keep the scale of the task in mind:  as sexy as the idea may seem, we're never going to power rush hour with restaurant grease.  And reducing petroleum consumption by more than a token amount will require much bigger and more profound changes in our lifestyles.

Posted by Northwest Environment Watch | Permalink


Dear Author of "Grease Is The Word",

Thanks very much for researching and disseminating the figures of the current productional status of biodiesel.

What I would like to add to your article is that although recycled biodiesel will never come close to meeting the huge energy consumption, it can be blended with fossil-diesel to give a cleaner combustion and reduce the pollutants generated from diesel engines (no modifications needed). It will also clean and smoothen the combustion process, which will in turn lengthen the usable life of diesel engines.

I hope you will find this piece of information useful. I would be more than grateful if you would publish it in your subsequent articles about biodiesel to educate the majority of the population, so that everyone can make a more informed decision to support or deny the usage of biodiesel.

Thanks very much for your attention.


Posted by: Tommy | Mar 21, 2005 2:54:28 PM

Consider the advantages of bio-diesel fuels in a hybrid drive train. Combustion efficiency is at its highest potential because engine revs are limited/matched to the generator (hi rev, low rev), rather than varied by driver and load variations of the mechanical transmission.

The debate about the future car can be boiled down thus: Hybrid vs Hydrogen vs Biodiesel. Hybrids can burn hydrogen, biodiesel, a variety of fuels, and run on the batteries. Hybrids win the debate.

Depending upon the size of the hybrid battery pack, hybrids can run more or less on batteries, rather than always on the bio-diesel engine.

Hybrid battery placement lowers vehicle center-of-gravity, improving stablility and handling, making hybrids safer and less prone to rollover, perfect for SUVs. The batteries also offer a real homepower supply, able to be recharged off rooftop solar panels or the utility grid.

Running solely on batteries, hybrids offer the best means to reform transportation systems overall. The "wholistic" transport system for urban/suburban travel incorporates pedestrian, mass transit and bicycling alongside, but not inferior to, motorized vehicles. The limits of Hybrid battery power create an economic incentive to drive shorter distances and patronize local economies. In time, more destinations become accessable via means other than always driving. The future city is thus based on metropolitan regions of 'wholly' accessable local economies 'regionally connected' with modern mass transit as well as with roads less travelled.

I'm all for bio-diesel fuels, but their best application is in the hybrid drive technology.

Posted by: Art | Mar 21, 2005 5:23:12 PM

I think bio-diesel is a thrifty way to recycle, and I agree with Tommy that blending it with normal diesel is a good idea.

It is still burning carbon of course.

Posted by: Jon S. | Mar 21, 2005 10:04:25 PM

I did not find a Trackback feature on this blog. You might want to consider it, its a tool that assists in "spreading the word".

Anyways, I posted some thoughts on my blog in reference to this issue. I would be interested in yours. Thank you.

Posted by: Ross Myers | Mar 21, 2005 10:13:06 PM

I just wanted to take a moment to address a few misconceptions in this post & comments.

1) No modifications are necessary to run biodiesel on newer cars, only on cars older than 1995 or so need new hoses (and likely a new fuel filter (if biodiesel has never been run in it before).

2) Most biodiesel in this country comes from virgin vegetable oil, not waste vegetable oil. I recognize that this raises an even larger issue about whether or not it's a good idea to produce fuel from food crops but it does demonstrate a much larger potential supply of biodiesel than was mentioned in this post.

It's also important to note that most North America biodiesel is derived from soybeans (in Europe, it's rapeseed/canola), which is highly inefficient at producing oil. There are dozens of better feed crops for biodiesel, but none with such strong goverment subsidies. Perhaps the most promising is algae, which can be produced in saltwater, is waste effluent ponds of factory farms, in sewage treatment outflows, and in the desert -- yielding more than 10 times as much fuel per acre. More great information about biodiesel from algae available here:

And about fuel oil yileds here:

It's not a silver bullet however, biodiesel can't solve all our fuel problems. I agree with Art that we will also need hybrids (and other technological innovations) and we'll need to conserve, and we'll need to construct our cities better so we can use mass transit, bike, and - gasp! - walk.

Jon S.
Although biodiesel is burning carbon, so does every other fuel source - if you consider that hydrogen production consumes energy. However, biodiesel burns carbon that was already in the atmoshere, not carbon that was trapped in the ground. Because the plants that produce the oil for biodiesel sequester CO2 throughout their lifespan, the release of carbon into the atmosphere is relatively low, in net terms. An EPA study on biodiesel puts CO2 emissions from biodiesel at 78% less than regular petroleum diesel. Taking into account this lifecycle model for biodiesel, it becomes evident that even your average diesel sedan (in terms of MPG) like a Jetta TDI running 100% biodiesel is on par with even the most efficient Prius' (Prii?), in terms of CO2 emissions.

Ross M.
If you have an auto trackback feature on your weblog enabled and you post a link to this story, your blog software should find it.

Posted by: Dave | Mar 23, 2005 9:45:52 AM

Are you certain that "much of what's sold right now is made from recycled cooking oil?"

If you buy biodiesel from a "real" vendor, versus "Fred-made, in his garage," then unless you live in Humboldt County, you probably get biodiesel made from 100% virgin soy oil. This is not A Good Thing. To the extent that soy beans are heavily subsidized, the price is artificially low.

What we REALLY need is to eliminate the inefficiency involved in making biodiesel. If Detroit, Tokyo and Stuttgard put half the effort they're putting into gas hybrids instead into what I call "fuel-versatile diesel", then we could eliminate the energy middleman of biodiesel and go straight to the source -- vegetable oil.

I run Veggie Van Gogh on waste vegoil (WVQ) and biodiesel. It is happier on WVO, getting better performance and efficiency. This is because vegoil is both a better lubricant, and has more energy than biodiesel. And today's biodiesel still has about 10% to 15% fossil fuel -- the methanol is steam-reformed from natural gas. Methanol COULD be made directly from vegetable mass -- it was once called "wood alcohol".


Another problem I have with this article is the "it will never replace petroleum" argument. If you add all the alternatives up, their total will never replace petroleum, folks! It's time to power down!

Which, as you note, means "much bigger and more profound changes in our lifestyles."

I am convinced world petroleum hit its peak on the Ides of March, 2005, the day that OPEC admitted that, in the first time in history, they could not supply demand. We are in for "bigger and more profound changes in our lifestyles," wether we choose them, or have them imposed upon us.

Posted by: Jan Steinman | Mar 25, 2005 8:23:13 PM