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.

Air Quality

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 for engines manufactured before 2010. Engines manufactured in 2010 and later have to meet the same emissions standards, whether running on biodiesel, diesel, or even natural gas. Selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology, which reduces nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions to near zero levels, makes this possible. For these new technology engines, the emissions from diesel fuel are comparable to those from biodiesel and are very, very low. These new technology engines are some of the cleanest engines on the road. 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) in older engines Learn more about Biodiesel Emissions.

Chart showing average emission impacts of biodiesel for heavy-duty highway engines. Particulate matter and carbon monoxide are reduced by 10% using B20 and by 50% using B100. Hydrocarbons are reduced by 20% using B20 and by 70% using B100.

Source: EPA 2002

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 emissions.

Engine Operation

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 increase 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.

Safety

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 130°C, compared with about 52°C for petroleum diesel. Biodiesel is safe to handle, store, and transport.