Biodiesel Guide – Sources, Production, Uses, & Regulations
December 18, 2020 Welcome
Over the past few decades, players in the renewable energy sector have continued to invest in biomass fuel production. This industry has seen significant growth with the major sources of biomass-derived energy (ethanol and biodiesel) helping to augment transport fuel needs.
This article will highlight aspects of biodiesel production, including its sources, uses, as well as the rules governing its manufacture and distribution.
What Is Biodiesel?
Biodiesel refers to the liquid fuel manufactured after processing renewable raw materials like animal fats and vegetable oils. These raw materials might be freshly collected or old materials that have been in storage. Biodiesel is produced by blending vegetable oils, grease, and animal wastes with a certain amount of alcohol.
Benefits of Biodiesel
Biodiesel provides a clean-burning renewable fuel alternative to conventional petroleum-based fuels. The key benefits of integrating biodiesel as a transportation fuel are listed below:
- Improved energy balance and security
- Reduced emission and improved air quality
- Optimized engine operation
- Greater environmental safety
Improved Energy Balance and Security
In 2019, the US imported 3% of its petroleum requirements to meet up with demands for the transportation sector which uses approximately 30% of total US energy needs. Integrating biofuels and other renewable fuel types produced within the country is strengthening national security and lowering transportation energy costs for individuals and businesses.
Further, locally synthesized biodiesel can function as a direct substitute for conventional diesel in many engine types or extend the supplies of conventional fuels. Biodiesel such as soybean biodiesel has a positive energy balance, meaning they yield a higher amount of energy for every unit of fossil fuel consumed.
Reduced Emission and Improved Air Quality
Regardless of fuel type being used, engines manufactured from 2010 onwards are held to the same emission standards. While selective catalytic reduction allows conventional diesel engines to meet environmental emission regulations, biodiesel-powered engines have a similar emission rating by default.
Carbon dioxide emissions from biodiesel have a lower lifecycle rating because the gas released from its combustion is offset by the gas absorbed when growing its substrates like soybean for example. With lower overall emissions, there is a significant improvement in air quality.
Optimized Engine Operation
Utilizing biodiesel improves fuel lubricity and raises the cetane number for that fuel blend. An improved fuel lubricity improves engine function and prolongs the lifespan of its moving parts by preventing premature wear.
Improved Safety Profile
Newly synthesized biodiesel in its pure state has a milder effect on the environment than conventional petroleum diesel if it is accidentally spilled. Biodiesel is less combustible than conventional diesel with a higher flash point which makes it safer to handle, store, and transport.
Biodiesel vs. Ethanol
Biodiesel and ethanol constitute the two major fuels derived from renewable biomass sources with a few fundamental differences. While biodiesel fuel can be derived from both plant and animal substrates by the process of trans-esterification, ethanol is derived from various plant-based raw materials only by subjecting plant starches and sugars to special fermentation processes.
Is Biodiesel Renewable?
Biodiesel is derived from organic raw materials both plant and animal sources which make it a renewable alternative to conventional diesel. Some hydrocarbon fuels can also be derived from biomass sources and are termed renewable diesel fuels.
While these renewable diesel fuels are generated from biomass, they are quite similar to their petroleum-based counterparts. Useful as a transportation fuel, various US energy players are currently retrofitting their facilities for renewable diesel production.
How Is Biodiesel Made?
So. How do you make biodiesel? Biodiesel is synthesized by a process of trans-esterification where glycerin is broken down to release fatty acid molecules contained in biomass substrate which then combine with alcohol molecules.
Most biodiesel made in the US is synthesized by combining feedstock oil (soybean oil) with either ethyl or methyl alcohol. Depending on the alcohol type employed, the trans-esterification product is either referred to as soy ethyl ester or soy methyl ester.
Sources of Biodiesel
The most popular sources of biodiesel are the plant and animal substrates listed below
- Animal fats
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
- Other feedstock oils (grapeseed, palm oil, sunflower oil)
In the US, soybean oil provides the single largest contribution to biodiesel production (approximately 57% of total).
Biodiesel Treatment – How to Process
The biodiesel treatment process moves sequentially from feedstock processing, deconstruction and fractionation to synthesis and upgrading. Pure, unblended biodiesel is referred to as B100. Biodiesel can be optimized for various weather conditions by blending it with petroleum diesel in various proportions.
What Is Biodiesel Used for?
Biodiesel blended in various proportions with petroleum-based diesel is used mostly as a transportation fuel to power different vehicle engines. Other applications for renewable biodiesel fuel include:
- Fuel filters
- Heating oils
- Oil spill cleanups
- Biodiesel electricity generators
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has strict guidelines governing the manufacture and distribution of biodiesel fuels. Energy manufacturers must adhere to various EPA regulations and seek clarification on various relevant environmental laws.
The EPA mandates compliance with the following acts and programs:
- Clean Water Act
- Safe Drinking Water Act
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) Program
- The Clean Air Act
- Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act
Recent data on biodiesel production and distribution has shown it is doing quite well compared to other transportation fuels. While the COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant decline in demand for petroleum-based diesel and ethanol derived from biomass, biodiesel production has remained virtually unchanged. This is due to the lack of blending restraints applicable to ethanol.
At present, biodiesel is the second most consumed biofuel in the US. With favorable production/blending incentives and compliance with the RFS, biodiesel will continue to compete favorably against other energy alternatives.
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