Monday, July 11, 2005

BRC 8: Ryan Thibodaux: Biodiesel: A Sustainable Alternative?

Ryan Thibodaux publishes the ever-eclectic The Higher Pie: from Bush-bashing to biodiesel, it's all here. Ryan is also, without a doubt, sustainablog's best source of positive word-of-mouth ("word-of-blog?). I really appreciate his efforts in promoting sustainablog, and definitely think of the Pie also as sustainablog's "Best Blog Friend."

Hi! I'm Ryan from The Higher Pie. I can't tell you how much I appreciate Jeff asking me to participate in these festivities as Sustainablog has been one of my few everyday-reads over the past 8 months since I found it (or, really, since Jeff happened upon my blog). I hope Sustainablog has many more years left in her. All the best, Jeff!

I wanted to spend my few lines of screen time on something that has become quite the obsession for the over the past several weeks: Biodiesel.

First, I'll try to clear up some confusion. There are two different ways to use biodiesel as fuel: One is called "SVO" or "Straight Veggie Oil". SVO involves converting a diesel vehicle by adding tanks in the trunk, a switch that changes the fuel intake from the regular diesel tank to the SVO tanks (SVO cars still need to be started and warmed up using regular "dino"-diesel fuel), and further filtering, injection, and fuel-heating modifications. The second option, which is commonly referred to as "biodiesel", involves no modification to the diesel car, but instead requires a conversion of new or USED vegetable cooking oil from its natural triglyceride state into a "methyl ester" state (essentially, replacing the glycerine molecules of the veggie oil with alcohol molecules).

To help decide which process to use, my wife asked me a simple question: "Do you want to ever stop at a gas station again?" The answer was "no", and soon we were off on a journey to produce our own methyl esters.

To have a glimpse at the actual process, head on over to my blog. But since we're at Sustainablog, I'd like to look at a few of the pros and cons of biodiesel as a sustainable and eco-friendly fuel alternative.

The cons:
- Methanol (as in "methyl" esters) is used: Though methanol can be derived from sustainable sources, it's often processed from fossil fuels, and it's difficult if not impossible to find out where your methanol came from. (Ethanol to produce "ethyl esters" can also be used. I don't think you'll have to search too far back in sustainablog's archives to find lots of ethanol discussion.)
- The veggie-oil to biodiesel reaction can be energy intensive: For the reaction to occur properly, the veggie oil must be heated to about 130F. Then the reactants (oil+methanol+lye) must be circulated with a pump (that requires energy) for several hours.
- The biodiesel must be washed with water to remove contaminants: Once the reaction is complete, biodiesel must be "washed" with clean water. The water collects particles and settles out to the bottom of the washing container. The water usage can be as much as 50% of the biodiesel yielded, and most of that water cannot be re-used for later washes (though it is non-toxic). If the biodiesel is left unwashed, those contaminants end up being burned by the engine, which greatly increases the car's emissions.
- If every diesel engine in use today in Emerika were to run on biodiesel, 97% of the U.S. would need to be farmland.
- To use biodiesel, you've got to put it in a car, and cars are the poster children of un-sustainabilty.

The Pros:
- Vegetable oil is a sustaibable product. It comes from vegetables!
- Used veggie oil that restaurants throw away ("waste veggie oil", or "WVO") is a troublesome waste product that often ends up in landfills, but can be used to make biodiesel.
- Using biodiesel in a diesel engine results in substantial reduction of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter compared to emissions from diesel fuel. Furthermore, the exhaust emissions of sulfur oxides and sulfates (major components of acid rain) from biodiesel are essentially eliminated compared to diesel. The USDoE also says that net CO2 emissions are reduced 78% using biodiesel.
- Using biodiesel supports farmers, not OPEC. (More a political than a sustainability argument I suppose). As the famous bumper-sticker says: "Biodiesel: No War Required!" Is the anything less sustainable than war?
- Willie Nelson powers his Mercedes using biodiesel, and Willie Nelson is awesome.

So there you have it. Biodiesel is certainly not the perfect solution, but other than walking, neither is anything else. Many of Jeff's other blog-friends will doubtlessly be able to expand on biodiesel's viability even further. All I can really tell you is that the process of learning about biodiesel, and then building my own biodiesel processor, has been as much fun and at least as rewarding as anything I've ever done.

So go ahead... Google "biodiesel" and let your own journey begin.

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Buy Greg Pahl's Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy at