Biodiesel Benefits and Considerations
Biodiesel is a domestically produced, clean-burning, renewable substitute for petroleum diesel. Using biodiesel as a vehicle fuel increases energy security, improves public health and the environment, and provides safety benefits.
Energy Security and Balance
The United States imports about half of its petroleum, two-thirds of which is used to fuel vehicles in the form of gasoline and diesel. Depending heavily on foreign petroleum supplies puts the United States at risk for trade deficits, supply disruption, and price changes. Biodiesel can be produced in the U.S. and used in conventional diesel engines, directly substituting for or extending supplies of traditional petroleum diesel.
Biodiesel also has an excellent energy balance: Biodiesel contains 3.2 times the amount of energy it takes to produce it. This value includes energy used in diesel farm equipment and transportation equipment, such as trucks and locomotives; fossil fuels used to produce fertilizers, pesticides, steam, and electricity; and methanol used in the manufacturing process. Because biodiesel is an energy-efficient fuel, it can extend petroleum supplies.
However, as biodiesel blend levels increase significantly beyond B20, the energy content per gallon decreases. Biodiesel contains about 8% less energy per gallon than petroleum diesel. For B20, this could mean a 1% to 2% difference, but most B20 users report no noticeable difference in performance or fuel economy.
Compared with using petroleum diesel, using biodiesel in a conventional petroleum diesel engine substantially reduces tailpipe emissions of unburned hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and particulate matter (PM). The reductions increase as the amount of biodiesel blended into diesel fuel increases. B100 provides the best emission reductions, but lower-level blends also provide benefits. B20 has been shown to reduce PM emissions 10%, CO 11%, and unburned HC 21% (see graph). Learn more about Biodiesel Emissions.
Using biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions because carbon dioxide released from biodiesel combustion is offset by the carbon dioxide sequestered while growing the soybeans or other feedstock. B100 use reduces carbon dioxide emissions by more than 75% compared with petroleum diesel. Using B20 reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 15%.
Greenhouse gas and air-quality benefits of biodiesel are roughly commensurate with the blend. B20 use provides about 20% of the benefit of B100 use. B100 use could increase nitrogen oxides emissions, although it greatly reduces other toxic emissions.
Biodiesel improves fuel lubricity and raises the cetane number of the fuel. Diesel engines depend on the lubricity of the fuel to keep moving parts from wearing prematurely. One unintended side effect of the federal regulations, which have gradually reduced allowable fuel sulfur to only 15 ppm and lowered aromatics content, has been to reduce the lubricity of petroleum diesel. To address this, the ASTM D975 diesel fuel specification was modified to add a lubricity requirement (a maximum wear scar diameter on the high-frequency reciprocating rig [HFRR] test of 520 microns). Biodiesel can impart adequate lubricity to diesel fuels at blend levels as low as 1%.
Before using biodiesel, be sure to check your engine warranty to ensure that higher-level blends of this alternative fuel don't void or affect it. High-level biodiesel blends can also have a solvency effect in engines that previously used petroleum diesel.
Biodiesel is nontoxic. It causes far less damage than petroleum diesel if spilled or released to the environment. It is safer than petroleum diesel because it is less combustible. The flashpoint for biodiesel is higher than 150°C, compared with about 52°C for petroleum diesel. Biodiesel is safe to handle, store, and transport.