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Biofuels Forever

Hey Folks! How about a Cure for Fossil-Fuel Addiction?

“The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today, but such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum … ”

Question: Who said that, and when?

Answer: Rudolf Diesel, in 1912. (Incidentally, Mr. Diesel’s birthday is March 18 and will be celebrated around the country as National Biodiesel Day)

The inventor of the diesel engine may have been among the first to anticipate the depletion of global fossil-fuel reserves, and to imagine the social and economic consequences, but he was far from the last.

“People have been warning about this for decades,” says Greg Pahl, author of Biodiesel, a new book from Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction, Vt.

Warning about what, exactly? About the convergence of two mathematical curves (rising demand for fossil fuels, and declining supply) that will cross someday with chilling inevitability, plunging the world into chaos–unless, of course, we pull our heads out of the sand and do something about it.

The irony is that the technology to prevent the disaster is already at head. What’s lacking is the social and political will.

“The dominant energy industries have not been interested in seeing any competition, basically,” Pahl explains. “They’ve got the ear of the House and the Senate, and to a large extent the administration as well.”

Big Oil’s solution–first, last, and always–is: Find more oil.

Pahl thinks he has a better idea: Grow more soybeans.

Biodiesel, Pahl explains in a recent interview, is “a vegetable oil-based fuel which can be made from virtually any vegetable oil feedstock”: soybeans, “popular in the United States”; canola, “very popular in Europe”; corn, palm, you name it.

When Rudolf Diesel patented the engine that bears his name in 1892, he saw it as a machine that could run on just about any fuel. But, as they have done so many times before and since, market forces prevailed over long-range vision. There was plenty of oil, an endless supply–so what was the point of running the machine on anything else?

Now we know. There are plenty of dire scenarios out there for what will happen when the “global village” needs more energy than it can produce.

“I’ve seen horrible ones,” Pahl says. “A lot of people are going to get hurt, and they just don’t get it.”

Biodiesel balances statistics on production and consumption (it would take one-fifth of the waste cooking oil generated in New York City to run its entire public transit system), with lucid lessons in basic biodiesel chemistry (call them Biodiesel for Dummies) and fascinating anecdotes–many of which involve raving skeptics being converted into true believers.

The essential recipe for the bio part of biodiesel fuel is almost comically simple. Pahl writes of a college professor who took a gallon of grease from a McDonald’s Dumpster back to his lab, mixed in some methanol and lye, and went to lunch. When he came back, “there it sat–a gallon of beautiful fuel from that awful grease. I couldn’t believe how easy it was.” [Chelsea Green is sponsoring a bus that will tour the country running on vegetable oil this summer.]

On an industrial scale, of course, it’s more complicated. And different blends of biodiesel–varying percentages of bio and diesel fuel–behave differently. The blend must be adjusted for climate and other factors. The percentage of bio to diesel is rated with the letter “B”: B20 is 20 percent fuel made from biomass; B40 is 40 percent, etc.

The practicality of biodiesel is beyond dispute. Europe has been ahead of the curve–and of the United States–for decades, in both research and application. In Germany, where 40 percent of passenger cars have diesel engines, you can buy B100 at any service station, and the fuel accounts for 3 percent of diesel-fuel sales. Not much, you say–but it beats zero.

On this side of the Atlantic, most research has been in the Midwest–relatively small-scale, and funded on a shoestring. Again and again, Biodiesel tells of promising research being shut down cold when funding ran out.

Pahl stresses that biodiesel is no “magic bullet”–and neither is anything else.

But people want magic bullets. Full-scale application of biodiesel will take care of maybe 10 percent of America’s energy needs? Big deal.

It is, if you factor in the widespread application of other renewable resources: wind, solar, hydro, etc.

Biodiesel’s most obvious handicap is that is more expensive to produce than other fuels. The mantra of political and industry resistance is that aggressive development of alternative energy will “hurt the economy” and “cost jobs.”

Maybe, maybe not. But when compared to the consequences of that apocalyptic–and the way things are going, inevitable–moment when those curves cross, maybe a little belt-tightening won’t kill us.

And don’t let anyone tell you the market isn’t there.

“So much global commerce is powered by diesel,” Pahl notes: heavy transport, construction, public transportation, etc. Make it economically competitive–and as fossil-fuel prices rise, that may be as simple as waiting–and the global energy machine will see biodiesel as the answer to its prayers.

A few progressive legislators–most of them from agricultural states, where voters would benefit most directly–have promoted biodiesel legislation. “The soybean farmers in the Midwest have been the ones who really been pushing this for years,” Pahl says. “They’ve got all this excess soybean oil that they want to find a better market for.”

Pahl is candid about the “preaching to the choir” syndrome.

“The people who need (to read) this book are probably not the first ones who are going to take it off the shelf,” he admits. “It’s beginning to happen. People are buying this book by the case, which is a little bit unusual.”

Pahl says many enthusiasts are sending the book to their legislators, and “a number of people are going to be using it as a textbook and required reading at various colleges.”

He is also tirelessly stumping the lecture circuit. As for book critics–well, there haven’t been any front-page spreads in The New York Times, but Pahl is buoyed by the many favorable reviews his book has received–many of which can be linked to from Chelsea Green’s Web site.

In such a sprawling and complicated matrix, success can be hard to define. When will Pahl know that his book has done its job?

“When you can drive downtown and fill up with D20 from a pump at your local station, he says. “And when you can call up your local fuel dealer, (and biodiesel is) a regular part of your fuel oil.”

If that day doesn’t come sooner rather than later, you might as well buy a horse.

Some Biodiesel Blogs you should check out
Biodiesel Blog Agregator
Biodiesel blog
Biodiesel Confidential
Energy Blog (piedmont biofuels)
Fueled for Thought
Living on Biodiesel
Willie Nelson’s Biofuels

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