While switching your operation to biodiesel may seem daunting, it could be easier than you think. For motor carriers who are new to the fuel, time must be invested in learning the terminology and usage benefits of biodiesel.
The first question is: What exactly is biodiesel in the first place? In short, biodiesel is an advanced biofuel that is both renewable and biodegradable. As a drop-in replacement for standard gasoline and diesel fuel, it burns cleaner and provides greater levels of fuel efficiency. It is also a versatile fuel, as it can be used in both vehicles and building heating systems.
Biodiesel fuels come in different varieties but must fall within the two categories of renewable and biodegradable. Although the methodologies and specific ignition ingredients may vary, most biofuels are produced from animal fats, inedible corn oil, or recycled vegetable or cooking oil. Still, not all biofuels come from these sources.
Longtime, skilled producers have refined their processes enough to produce high-quality biodiesel from a variety of agricultural feedstocks. The process includes something called transferification, which converts the fats in the oils into a chemical substrate called fatty acid methyl esters (FAME). FAME is the acronym that represents the scientific name for biodiesel.
The esters are the fuel, while the leftover glycerin is used to make things like soap and beauty products. Virgin waste oil from restaurants can be used in this process with good results. From seed-to-pump, biofuels are entirely renewable. Even better, the benefits are compounded since the plants that provide the fuel already remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
As would be expected of a fuel, biodiesel is held to specific ASTM standards. It must meet a rigorous standard of quality to be used in commercial applications. Biodiesel is also mixed into petroleum, which is referred to as “B” and a number. Take B20 as an example. The “B” stands for blend level and the 20 stands for the 20 percent biodiesel mixed in with 80% petroleum diesel. A B5 mix would consist of 5% biodiesel.
The Advantages of Biofuel
There are many ways in which a fleet can benefit from converting to biodiesel. First is in the area of performance. In some cases, biodiesel fuel outperforms its petroleum-based counterparts. The ASTM spec for biodiesel specifically calls for a Cetane number of 47. For an engine of the same specs using standard petroleum diesel? 40. A higher Cetane rating equates to a shorter ignition time and better overall engine and fuel efficiency performance.
The construction of biofuels serves as another advantage over traditional petroleum diesel. Biofuels have the sulfur removed during the refining process. A B2 blend, as one example, can double the fuel’s level of lubrication. Since modern diesel engines rely on the fuel they use to lubricate the system, biofuel blends can handle this responsibility quite well.
In the age of GHG fuel economy regulations, biofuels have the ability to dramatically reduce emissions from commercial motor vehicles. The aforementioned B20 blend has been shown to reduce particulate matter and carbon monoxide emissions by double digits. In fact, a recent study completed by academic and federal researchers found that biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions within the supply chain by 72% and fossil fuel use by 80%. These are truly impressive numbers.
Biofuels are also usually grown, produced, and distributed locally. While petroleum-based products are limited by demand and geography, biodiesel can work as an alternative form of fuel from just about anywhere. It can easily be produced in local refineries where it can quickly be delivered to the end user.
When a product is produced at the local level, it generally translates into hundreds – if not thousands – of jobs. Biofuels created from crops helps to stimulate sustainable crop microeconomies. The knock-on effect is great. Less particles in the air and decreased smog and emissions results in less healthcare expenses for communities.
Conversely, when oil is extracted from underground sources, it must be refined to run on diesel engines. It cannot be immediately transferred into the vehicle for use. The refining process also uses harsh chemicals that – if released into the environment – could create a large disaster. Biofuel refineries use far less harsh chemicals. In fact, most of the solvents and chemical byproducts used in the creation of biofuels are themselves biodegradable.
Did you know that semi-trucks that run on biofuels typically have a fuel economy measure 30% better than their straight petroleum-burning counterparts? That means fewer trips to the pump and more money pumped into the bottom line. Less petroleum use means the United States can rely less on foreign powers for energy. Creating more of what we need weans us off of other sources.
A final pro related to the use of biofuels can be traced back to business. For fleets looking to meet specific sustainability goals, biofuel can be an attractive option. Whether it be through a fleet’s operations or their vendor partnerships, specific carbon reduction goals are attainable with biofuels. Take Walmart as one example. They have pledged to reduce emissions within their fleet by a gigaton within 12 years. Biofuels, natural gas, and other renewables will play a big part in helping large organizations committed to reducing emissions meet their goals.
But are there disadvantages to biofuel? Of course, nothing is perfect. There are variations in the quality of biofuels out there. Biofuels are also not the best option for low temperatures, as they tend to gel up depending on the oil or fat used in the fuel. Fleets that run with biofuels in the winter months can avoid this by blending it with winterized diesel fuel.
From food shortages to the increased use of fertilizers or potential fuel filter clogging, biofuels carry several cons. Fortunately, many of them can be easily mitigated. There is far more to gain from the use of biofuels in your fleet operations than there is to lose.
Ethanol is a Biofuel
While some may not realize it, simply because of its ubiquity in the world of fuel, ethanol is a biofuel. Since it can be made from various refined plant sources, ethanol is technically a biofuel. By itself ethanol is also a blending agent, used in combination with gasoline to increase octane and cut down on CO2 release. The use of ethanol as a blending agent also reduces smog-causing emissions.
Ethanol carries the same moniker as the base biofuel, being a combination letter and number. The most common type of ethanol blend used is E10, which breaks down to 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline. Flexible fuel vehicles can run on E85, which represents 51% to 83% ethanol. What many don’t realize is that approximately 97% of all the fuel used in the U.S. has some ethanol in it.
Although most ethanol products have been based off of hardy plant sugars, research scientists are developing new technologies that take advantage of engineered cellulose. These methodologies could be the most sustainable of all.
Engineered cellulose and hemicellulose are non-edible, fibrous materials that can be used to generate energy in much the same way plant matter – which is composed of the same materials – does. The fermentation method of converting biomass into biofuel is ubiquitous across applications. During fermentation, microorganisms metabolize plant sugars whether artificial or not.
Adding Biodiesel to Your Operation
Biodiesel seems to get more popular by the day. Trucking companies saw their biodiesel consumption rise by over 130% between 2011 and 2016. Even more, private and public fleets across North America are adding biofuels to their fuel portfolio, whether it be FedEx, the city of New York, or other municipalities or entities.
Trucking companies that want to start using B20 fuel can simply pump it into their diesel vehicles. That is the beauty of the fuel. Using biofuel does not require any major upgrades to existing diesel-powered equipment. Fleets that run their own fueling operation can switch to biodiesel without supply or infrastructure interruptions.
Any diesel engine can burn biodiesel without problem. This is a critical difference from waste vegetable oil (WVO) and straight vegetable oil (SVO). What does it look, sound and smell like in application? The only difference in the exhaust is in the smell, which can be somewhat French-fry-like in nature.
For a blended product, motor carriers must ensure their current diesel supplier can meet the requirement. For onsite blending, a fleet needs to have a dedicated biodiesel storage tank and a comprehensive blending system. Technicians able to operate the equipment and manage the right blends will also be required. This method requires some capital investment and expertise to succeed.
Still, the intrepid trucking company or truck driver that makes the switch will find themselves rewarded in the long run. Studies show that the initial cost to make the switch to a dedicated biodiesel fleet can be achieved in as little as six to 18 months. With such a high return on investment, what’s not to like about biodiesel?