Rip Rap July 15, 2003 Issue

Bio-Diesel: Nice Fuel if You Can Find It

I have heard it suggested that we use soy oil for diesel engines. I have a 3-cylinder Universal diesel and was wondering if you would advise the use of soy oil. If so, is this the typical oil found in grocery stores or Sam’s Club, or something that is formulated differently? Would you suggest using it straight, or mixed with regular diesel fuel?

-Dave R. Ireland
Via e-mail

To back up a bit, Practical Sailor reported on soy diesel in the March 15, 1996 issue. It wasn't easy to find, but we bought two five-gallon containers of what is called B100. The "B" stands for "bio" (the industry prefers "bio" to "soy"); the 100 is the percentage of pure soy oil. Hence, B50 would be half-and-half. B20 is 20% soy, 80% petroleum diesel.

We tested the stuff in both an automobile and a boat, and it worked as well as regular diesel and without nearly as much smoke. Biodiesel is marvelously clean.

However, the vegetable stuff did set up solid in cold weather, necessitating a trip to an agricultural supply house for some thinner. (Regular diesel has to have the same additive.)

At the time, the biodiesel was $5 a gallon for the pure stuff.

We've gone round the horn again and found nothing much has changed about the superiority of biodiesel over petrodiesel—and the prices are still high.

Charles Hatcher, a director of the National Biodiesel Board (known until 1994 as the National Soy Diesel Development Board), said that B100 is selling in a per gallon range of $1.69 to $2.22—before taxes. That's about the price of petrodiesel with taxes. So, depending on how much the state in which you live likes to milk from fuel prices, the biodiesel still is more expensive than regular diesel.

Because of the price, it's popular to use blended diesel fuel to obtain some of the anti-pollution benefits of biodiesel.

Hatcher said that biodiesel is now well-developed and "out of the laboratory." The problem now is distribution. There are said to be about 400 automobile filling stations now handling biodiesel. No one we talked to could name a single marina that handles it. (If there are some, let's get some mail on the subject.)

For the other part of your question, which had to do with grocery store vegetable oil, you cannot burn plain vegetable oil in your diesel. It'll gum it up very quickly.

Biodiesel can be made from any vegetable oil (corn, soy, cottonseed, canola, peanut, sunflower, rapeseed). It also can be made from animal fats (beef tallow, pork lard, poultry fat), and even used cooking oil. Old cooking oil can cost as little as 10¢ a gallon, which you might think would take care of the used stuff from Macdonald's and all those other deep-fat users. However, the oil used for french fries must be collected, handled, filtered, and cleaned, which very quickly drives the price up near what is called "virgin oil." Even then, when burned, it smells like you've parked under the exhaust fan of your local greasy spoon.

Whether cooking oil, animal fat, or pure vegetable oil, the stuff must be "processed."

The process, known as transesterification, removes the undesirable—from a fuel standpoint—glycerin. (The glycerin is otherwise valuable for hand lotion, lubrication, etc.) Add several minor additives, including that chemical to keep it from gelling in cold weather, and you have a fine diesel fuel.

Biodiesel is biodegradable and has a high flash point, meaning that it's hard to ignite. In fact, for shipping, it's classed as non-hazardous and non-flammable. Compared with petrodiesel, it has a little less BTU punch but lubricates much better. In high concentrations (above 20%) it tends to degrade rubber and butyl, so hoses and seals must be checked more often than with petrodiesel. Diesel truck engines are currently being built with that rubber problem in mind.

Meanwhile, there's a lot of furious, big-time politicking, with so much in-fighting that it's difficult to find a single truth anywhere. The trucking industry is fighting the big agricultural cartels. Engine makers are firing off volleys of questions about why the Federal government is ordering everybody to buy biodiesel, while the rest of us have never heard such orders issued (and can scarely believe it of the current administration). States are fighting the Feds over who gets to slap the taxes in there. Legislation pops up, usually sponsored by those representing agricultural states, to force the use of one- or two-percent biodiesel in all regular diesel.

Last year, the Department of Defense ordered 1.5 million gallons of B20 (hardly a squirt, in the grand scheme of things), and ordered it delivered to military and civilian locations throughout the country. The price: 82¢ a gallon—about the same as the big-lot price of regular diesel. (Soy growers danced in the street when President Clinton in 1998 issued executive order #13101, giving preference to biodiesel for Federal use.)

There are those who feel that biodiesel is being held back by the Big Oil interests. That goes in the category of the legendary 100-mpg carburetor. (Everybody knows the American Automobile Manufacturers Association had the inventor assassinated and atomized, his laboratory and journals burned, and the ashes divided among the fat-cat stock holders who found it ideal to fertilize their orchid plants.)

Others say the biodiesel interests have had a lush 10 years living high on lavish Federal subsidies. These interests are almost entirely highly-organized soybean growers and environmental profiteers. That's probably as unfair as the carburetor yarn. However, it is true that three of the four top officers of the National Biodiesel Board are soybean growers or top officers of state soybean promotion organizations.

What should we really think? Biodiesel, made from a renewable resource, is a great fuel that will stand in easily for petrodiesel when its time comes. Geopolitical realities as they are, we can certainly hope that the time comes sooner than later. It's not going far out on a limb to hope for a reduction in American dependence on foreign oil: Even the most rabid liberals and conservatives can agree on that point.

Meanwhile, try to find out the price of biodiesel. It is described always as a "volatile" market. Recently the prices have been going up because of bad weather and a poor crop season. At a time when regular diesel is $1.85, we found a few sources that put "today's" biodiesel prices at $2.55 for B100 (the pure stuff) and $1.85 for B20. Those prices are for "off-road" biodiesel—diesel generators, farm tractors (of course), boats, etc.

If you're gonna burn it in your car, you'll get taxed 50¢ or more a gallon (of course).

If you want to bring the price down closer to regular diesel by blending or "splashing," as the industry calls it, you can figure on adding a penny a gallon for each percentage point of biodiesel additive.

National Biodiesel Board, 800/841-5849,
Cytoculture, 510/769-3437,
Interchem, 913/599-0800,
Ag Environmental Products, 913/599-6911,
NOPEC (OceanAir Environmental), 941/683-7199,

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