Biofuels

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Biodiesel and ethanol are the two most widely used liquid biofuels, as they are renewable and burn cleaner than fossil fuels. Recent EPA analysis of lifecycle GHG emissions show that ethanol and biodiesel, when compared to their petroleum-based counterpart, will reduce atmospheric CO2 by 20 percent to 60 percent, depending on the type of fuel and feedstock (raw material) being used. See all Bioenergy Members

Biodiesel is produced via a reaction called transesterification, which turns vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled greases into an efficient and clean-burning alternative, or additive, to fossil fuels. Biodiesel can be used in any diesel engine, equipment, or heating appliance that uses distillate fossil fuels (i.e., diesel, heating oil, kerosene). Ethanol is produced via hydrolysis and fermentation, transforming the energy stored in sugar and starch crops, such as corn, into a replacement or additive for gasoline engines.

Biofuels History and Usage

Biofuels in transportation can be traced back to the origins of the automobile. Rudolph Diesel ran his first engine on a variety of fuels, including peanut oil, while Henry Ford had designs to fill up his Model T’s with bioethanol. The discovery of fossil fuels (oil is actually an ancient “biofuel,” the product of decomposed plant and animal matter buried for millions of years), introduced an initially cheaper, and more versatile form of energy.

Now, with growing environmental, political, and economical impacts of fossil fuels, liquid biofuels are again being looked at with serious interest for transportation and other uses. The US continues to pursue domestic ethanol production with corn crops, to meet current renewable fuel blending mandates, while significant investments are being made to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production. This is an advanced biofuel made from the corn stalk and other agricultural crops and residues, and not the grain itself. Other feedstocks being researched include high-yield algae, and agricultural, forestry, municipal and industrial waste and residues.

The EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard has called for America to use 36 billion gallons of renewable transportation fuel by 2022, and the USDA has undertaken a nation-wide study of how rural America can meet that demand. Vermont and the Northeastern states are being called upon to help accelerate bioenergy R&D (for heating and transportation) in order to reduce fossil fuel consumption, invigorate our rural economy and decrease the buildup of atmospheric CO2 that is the leading cause of climate change.

detail-biofuels1Biofuels in Vermont

According to U.S. Dept of Energy, Vermont consumed ~147M gallons of heating oil and kerosene and ~69M gallons of diesel in 2006, and over 33M gallons of gasoline. Some estimates show that by 2025, Vermont could be producing sustainable biofuels to meet up to 30% of current demand.

With no corn-based ethanol production in the state, Vermont’s first efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption were to establish biodiesel as a “mainstream” additive or replacement to diesel fuels and heating oil. Now, oilseed crops are being cultivated on over a dozen Vermont farms for their fuel, feed and food value, with much of it being converted to biodiesel on and for the farms that produce the oilseeds. There are still no large commercial biodiesel producers in the state.

New England’s geography, climate and agricultural traditions present challenges and opportunities to develop new models for small-scale biofuels production and use. Recognizing the need for local and renewable fuel sources, several organizations (in addition to REV) are involved in different aspects of the funding, technical assistance, education and outreach, to help build a sustainable biofuels sector in the state.

One group that has taken the lead in this arena is the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative where Vermont farmers, entrepreneurs and researchers are building an alternative model of bioenergy production that is small-scale, community focused, economical, and sustainable. VBI supports research, technical assistance, and infrastructure development in emerging areas of bioenergy. These include biodiesel production for heating and transportation, oil crops for on-farm biodiesel and feed, grass for heating, and algae production for biofuels and wastewater management. VBI has produced a number of resources including videos, report, calculators, and image galleries. VBI partners with the University of Vermont Extension and is supported by funding secured by US senator Patrick Leahy and the US Department of Energy.

The University of Vermont is taking an active lead in new biofuels research and development. Dr. Heather Darby in Extension leads oilseed crop research, while Chris Callahan, PE, in Agricultural Engineering provides research and technical support for on-farm biofuel production. Dr. Anju Dahiya is a biofuel instructor and founded GSSR Solutions, which provides native algae strains for biofuel production, and DR. Alexander Wurthmann in the Chemistry Deparment has founded Green Mountain Spark, which provides a single-step process for algae to biodiesel conversion.

Algae-to-biofuels research began in earnest at the University of Vermont in 2009. To date, there are research projects, prototypes and private sector collaborations at UVM Rubenstein School of Natural Science, College of Engineering, and the Gund Institute.

Additional Biofuels Resources

Vermont Resources:

Production and Use:

Other US and International:

detail-biofuels3Biodiesel FAQs

What is biodiesel?

Biodiesel is a clean-burning alternative fuel, produced from renewable resources such as soybeans, sunflowers, canola, waste cooking oil, or animal fats. Biodiesel contains no petroleum, but can be blended at any level with petroleum diesel to create a biodiesel blend. It can be used in compression-ignition (diesel) engines or oil-fired boilers or furnaces with little or no modifications. Biodiesel is simple to use, biodegradable, nontoxic, and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics.

How is biodiesel made?

Biodiesel is made through a chemical process called transesterification, in which the glycerin is separated from the fat or vegetable oil. The process leaves behind two products—alkyl esters (the generic chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerin (a byproduct usually sold to be used in soaps and cosmetics).

What is B100?

Full strength (100 percent) biodiesel is often referred to as B100 or “neat” biodiesel. A blend of biodiesel containing 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel is referred to as B20. The most popular blend of biodiesel in the United Sates is B20, which offers significant reductions in harmful emissions at an affordable price. As demonstrated in testimony before the Vermont Public Service board, low sulfur heating oil with a B-20 biodiesel blend is cleaner than natural gas.

Why should I use biodiesel?

Biodiesel that is made locally or in the USA from renewable resources decreases our dependence on foreign oil, creates jobs, and contributes to our own economy. In addition, the use of biodiesel reduces atmospheric CO2 and other GHG emissions compared to the use of fossil fuels. For farm producers creating biodiesel, this can increase their self-sufficiency, provide for energy security, and bring new revenue to the farm.

Can I heat my home with biodiesel?

Biodiesel is just as safe and performs as well as regular Number 2 heating oil, except that it burns cleaner. In fact, in most cases, biodiesel can be blended with regular heating oil at a concentration up to 20 percent with no adverse effects. Higher concentrations can be used with minor oil-burner retrofits. (Vermont Bioenergy Initiative)

Do I need to modify my diesel vehicle to use biodiesel in it?

Biodiesel can be operated in any diesel engine with few or no modifications to the engine or the fuel system. Biodiesel has a solvent effect that may release deposits accumulated on tank walls and pipes from previous diesel fuel storage. The release of deposits may clog filters initially so precautions should be taken. For best performance, ensure that only fuel meeting the biodiesel specification is used.

How do biodiesel emissions compare to petroleum diesel?

Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to have completed the health effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act. The use of biodiesel in a conventional diesel engine or oil-fired furnace or boiler, results in substantial reduction of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter, compared to emissions from diesel fuel or No.2 heating oil. In addition, the exhaust emissions of sulfur oxides and sulfates (major components of acid rain) from biodiesel are essentially eliminated compared to diesel. The most recent EPA and DOE studies looking at NOx and biodiesel show no difference in emissions between biodiesel and petrodiesel.

Can biodiesel help mitigate climate change?

A 1998 biodiesel lifecycle study, jointly sponsored by the US Department of Energy and the US Department of Agriculture, concluded that tailpipe CO2 emissions of biodiesel were 78% lower than CO2 emissions from petrodiesel. Building on this earlier study, in June 2009, the EPA released its lifecycle analysis of the impacts of Direct and Indirect Land Use Change on the carbon accounting of biofuels. This report states that biodiesel made from soybean, canola or algae have a GHG emission “reduction” of greater than 50% compared to the petrodiesel baseline.

Do we have to choose between good food and clean energy?

No, biodiesel can be produced in ways that do not compromise critical food security. The relationship between biofuel production and food resources has been greatly exaggerated in the media. Biofuels grown on productive cropland were a minor factor in the run up to record high food prices in 2008, but consider these far more significant contributing factors (*according to a 2008 Congressional Budget Office report): 1) The rising cost of fuel, fertilizer and transportation, along with retail food industry price hikes were the primary cause of food price increases between 2007 and 2008, and 2) Other factors include drought, crop failure, population growth, the weakening dollar, political instability, and commodity futures speculation. Even so, international attention on these issues are re-shaping biofuel production and policies. Going forward, large-scale biofuel production is being built upon the use of non-food energy feedstocks. (Vermont Bioenergy Initiative)

Is Biodiesel the same thing as straight vegetable oil (SVO)?

No. Biodiesel is produced from any fat or oil such as soybean oil, through a refinery process called transesterification. This process is a reaction of the oil with an alcohol, to remove the glycerin, which is a by-product of biodiesel production. With the glycerin removed, biodiesel has a viscosity almost identical to petrodiesel, and biodiesel that meets ASTM D6751 specifications will perform to high industry standards. Although there are many satisfied users of SVO (or for that matter off-spec biodiesel) in engines and equipment of all kinds, SVO has not gone through the analytical rigor nor has it been approved as an on-road motor fuel by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Where can I get biodiesel in Vermont?

Find biofuel providers at the Vermont Renewable Energy Atlas

Where can I find out more about biofuels?

A great place to start is the Department of Energy’s ABC’s of Biofuels page, which covers everything from the science behind the production of biofuels, the various feed sources, the uses, the environmental impacts and benefits to science fair ideas for students.

Some of the above material was adapted from the National Biodiesel Board, www.biodiesel.org

Last updated July, 2014

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