Biodiesel Myth #7 – Biodiesel is Just Vegetable Oil

In a multi-part series about biodiesel, this is one of several articles in an attempt to dispel the myths about biodiesel and it’s use in commercial and private diesel engines.

Myth #7 – Biodiesel is Just Vegetable Oil

This is one of my favorites, mostly because for a long time the media simply wouldn’t actually spend the 10 minutes online researching the difference between soybean oil and biodiesel to know the difference, and actually perpetuated this myth more than anyone else.

To the layman, I can see why it’s easy to confuse.  Rudolf Diesel first invented his engine to run on Peanut oil, as many reporters accurately claim.  However, the modern engine looks almost nothing like Rudolf Diesel’s engine, and that while it’s true that many modern diesel engines can run straight vegetable oil, almost none do because it’s generally accepted as harmful to the engine in the form of engine coking and fouling.  Using vegetable oil also require significant pre-heating of the fuel and a complicated dual fuel setup which is beyond the scope of this blog article.  See the Elsbett SVO Conversion (which will void your warranty) diagram for an idea of just how complicated these systems can be.  For more information, Google “Diesel SVO Conversions” and you’ll see what I mean.

SVO Conversion Diagram

I’ll say it once more in more simple format: “Straight Vegetable Oil Is Not Biodiesel“.

So, what do biodiesel and straight vegetable oil have in common?  Biodiesel is quite usually made from vegetable oil.  But, in truth, biodiesel can be made from animal fats too, or most any fat, for that matter.  Through a process called transesterification, vegetable oil is stripped and converted into Biodiesel (which is technically called a mono-alkyl ester).  This new chemical, trade named “Biodiesel”, is now more chemically similar to petroleum diesel, and has many of the same characteristics of it’s petroleum cousin.  Biodiesel is registered motor fuel and approved by the EPA as a motor fuel and fuel addative, and has an ASTM standard (D-6751) which must be adhered to in order to sell it as a motor fuel.  This standard has very tight requirements on the composition of the fuel, and the limits on impurities that can exist in that fuel.  Fuel that does not meet the standard cannot be sold as biodiesel for motor fuel use.

Vegetable Oil doesn’t have any of those standards and approvals.   See, vegetable oil is generally used as food. Biodiesel is fuel. More to the point, because SVO is not an approved motor fuel by the EPA, using it will most certainly void the engine warranty.  You can actually see the difference.  The picture below shows straight vegetable oil on the left, and biodiesel on the right.  Both are filtered, clean products that could be used as a motor fuel.  The difference is in the viscosity, gums, combustibility, and cold weather performance.    Which one would you put in your engine?

SVO vs. Biodiesel

Harkin says biodiesel tax credit should be in energy bill

From O. Kay Henderson RadioIowa.com:

Senator Tom Harkin is pushing this week to get a tax break for biodiesel extended during the so-called “lame duck” session of congress that’s underway in Washington. Harkin wants to add the biodiesel tax credit to an energy bill that’s scheduled to come up for a vote in the U.S. Senate on Thursday.

“We need to move forward on energy legislation. We all recognize that, but there’s something terribly missing from this bill,” Harkin said during remarks on the Senate floor. “And what’s missing from this bill is any mention of biofuels and what biofuels can contribute to our energy independence in this country.”

The tax credit for blending soybean-based biodiesel expired at the end of 2009. The Iowa Biodiesel Board estimates as many as 2,500 Iowans have lost their jobs in the past year because biodiesel plants in Iowa are idle or have been closed for good because of the tax issue. Harkin is threatening to vote “no” on the energy bill if it does not include the biodiesel tax credit.

“What’s missing from the bill is really a focus, any focus at all on the one thing over the last, say, 20 years that has really decreased our dependence on foreign oil — there’s only been one — and that’s the use of biofuels for transportation,” Harkin said during a speech on the Senate floor.

Harkin’s also pressing congress to vote now to extend the federal tax break for ethanol which is set to expire at the end of this year. The tax break is 45-cents per gallon.

Biodiesel Myth #6 – Biodiesel is Incompatible in Boats.

In a multi-part series about biodiesel, this is one of several articles in an attempt to dispel the myths about biodiesel and it’s use in commercial and private diesel engines.

Myth #6 – Biodiesel is Incompatible in Boats.

Wrong again.  That’s ethanol, and even that’s not entirely true.   Several older engines can not use any fuels that contain alcohol.  Eg. Certain fiberglass tanks, mostly manufactured prior to 1992, will decompose from alcohol.  Most modern marine grade combustion engines are compatible with alcohol based fuels.   But that’s enough about ethanol, we’re talking about biodiesel.

Biodiesel is an obvious candidate for use in marine applications. Independent tests have found that pure biodiesel is non-toxic, readily biodegradable and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics.

Biodiesel will not harm fish. The 96-hr. LC50 (lethal concentration) for Bluegills for C16-18 methyl esters was greater than 1,000 mg./L. Concentrations above 1,000 mg/L are deemed “insignificant” according to NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) Guidelines in its Registry of the Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances.

Biodiesel is easier on humans, too. Vessel operators report a noticeable change in exhaust odor. The reduction in smell and change of odor are more palatable with engine workers. In fact, it’s been compared to the smell of French fries. Biodiesel users also report having no eye irritation.

Biodiesel is biodegradable. C16-18 methyl esters are considered biodegradable based on their chemical nature and test data collected for experimentally determined oxygen demand and carbon dioxide production as a percent of calculated theoretical values. C16-18 methyl esters do not show any micro biological inhibition up to 10,000 mg/L.

In tests performed by the University of Idaho, biodiesel in an aqueous solution after 28 days was 95 percent degraded. Diesel fuel was only 40 percent degraded. In a second study done in an aquatic environment (CO2 Evolution), various biodiesel products were 85.5-88.5 percent degraded in 28 days, which is the same rate as sugar (dextrose). Diesel degradation was 26.24 percent.

Biodiesel offers more environmental benefits. For research vessels and consumers using commercial vessels, biodiesel offers a more environmentally-friendly alternative to regular diesel. Because it is non-toxic and biodegradable, consumers and researchers may pressure owners for biodiesel use, especially in sensitive or protected waterway areas.

Biodiesel is a renewable, domestic fuel. Biodiesel is made from renewable fats and oils, such as vegetable oils, through a simple refining process. The by-product glycerin is used in commercial applications from toothpaste to cough syrup. One of the principal commodities used as a source for biodiesel is soybeans, a major crop produced by almost 400,000 farmers in 29 states.

Biodiesel helps speed diesel degradation when used in blends with petroleum diesel fuel. Biodiesel degrades about four times faster than petroleum diesel fuel. Also, when blended with biodiesel, the degradation rate of petroleum diesel tripled when compared to diesel alone, according to a 1995 University of Idaho test.

Biodiesel can work in several marine factions.
Because biodiesel can replace or blend with petroleum diesel with little or no engine modifications, it is a viable alternative to several categories of the marine industry, including: recreational boats, inland commercial and ocean-going commercial ships, research vessels, and the U.S. Coast Guard Fleet. Today, much of the emphasis is on recreational boats, which consume about 95 million gallons of diesel fuel annually.

Biodiesel is a safe alternative.
Biodiesel has a higher flash point – a minimum of 200 degrees versus about 125 degrees Fahrenheit for regular #2 diesel. Biodiesel also offers low-pressure storage at ambient temperatures, handles like diesel and is safer to transport.

Biodiesel has higher lubricity.
Biodiesel blended at a 20 percent rate with petroleum diesel has a lower wear scar than traditional fuel. At the 20 percent blend level, biodiesel shows improved lubricity with low sulfur petroleum diesel containing high or low aromatic levels. Start-up, power, range and cold-weather performance characteristics are similar to diesel.

Even low levels of biodiesel (1-5%) with diesel fuel offer superior lubricating properties. Recent test results using the HFRR test showed a reduction in wear scar from 0.61 mm to 0.35 mm using a 1% blend of biodiesel with the base diesel.

Triangle Biofuels currently offers a marine grade B20 biodiesel (includes additional anti-gel and fuel stabilizers to retard fuel decomposition and moisture attraction), and offers a biodiesel based diesel fuel additive called TerraSlick that can be used to improve diesel engine performance using regular diesel fuel.

If you are are marine biodiesel user, the National Biodiesel Board would like you to take a brief survey to help provide better information about using biodiesel in a marine environment.  Please take a minute to help them (and us) by filling it out:  http://nbb.org/interact/usercomments/

*Source – The National Biodiesel Board

Biodiesel Myth #5 – Biodiesel makes food costs higher.

In a multi-part series about biodiesel, this is one of several articles in an attempt to dispel the myths about biodiesel and it’s use in commercial and private diesel engines.

Myth #5 – Biodiesel makes food costs higher.

This myth began with the increase in ethanol and biodiesel production in 2007.  It reached a fever pitch in 2008 with numerous articles claiming that corn and soy costs were skyrocketing because of ethanol and biodiesel production increases to meet consumer demand.

Soybeans and SME

The truth is that it was just the food industry capitalizing on speculation.  Want proof?  In 2010, biodiesel production in the USA is at 35% of it’s volume from 2009, but prices for soybean oil are at .50 per lb now ($3.75/gal), versus .35 per lb ($2.60/gal) this time last year.

Biodiesel?  Well, it’s at $3.80 per gallon now, versus $3.40 this time last year.

So, biodiesel production has decreased by over 65%, and prices only marginally increased (in spite of not having a federal tax credit), but soybean oil costs have gone through the roof.  What’s the real cause?  The same thing as last year, and the year before that.  Exports.  We’re exporting ridiculous amounts of virgin fats and WVO to Asia, Latin America, and Europe for things such as animal feed, and biodiesel feedstock.   With the dollar being depressed and petroleum less heavily subsidized in other countries, it makes sense to send cargo shiploads of vegetable oil to make biodiesel out of.

So, what should our government do to help biofuels? Restrict exports for feedstocks in the interest of national security?  Structured commodity markets?  In an environment where Ag companies are used to price supports and price fixing, it’d also be nice to see a fixed price per gallon for inedible soybean oil that is specifically used for biodiesel, and mandatory allotments that must be sold. (Think tobacco, and it doesn’t sound that harsh.)

Sources:

See http://www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/lswagenergy.pdf

Biodiesel Myth #4 – Biodiesel Will Void My Warranty

In a multi-part series about biodiesel, this is one of several articles in an attempt to dispel the myths about biodiesel and it’s use in commercial and private diesel engines.

Myth #4 – Biodiesel Will Void My Warranty

In a word, No.   This is a myth perpetuated by people that either don’t understand the issue or are trying to keep the status quo. For engine manufacturers of engines and fuel injection equipment, the manufacturers warranty their products against defects of materials & workmanship, not the fuel.  No engine is warrantied against bad fuel, even if it’s petroleum fuel.

Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act

The Magnuson-Moss Act (P.L. 93-637) is a United States federal law (15 U.S.C. § 2301 et seq.). Enacted in 1975, it is the federal statute that governs warranties on consumer products.

Certain items specific to the Magnuson-Moss act apply to biodiesel which specifically exclude engine manufacturers, or car/truck dealers from requiring someone to use petroleum diesel (or even a specific blend of biodiesel) to fuel the car:

The Act provides that any warrantor warranting a consumer product to a consumer by means of a written warranty must disclose, fully and conspicuously, in simple and readily understood language, the terms and conditions of the warranty to the extent required by rules of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC has enacted regulations governing the disclosure of written consumer product warranty terms and conditions on consumer products actually costing the consumer more than $15. The Rules can be found at 16 C.F.R. Part 700.

Under the terms of the Act, ambiguous statements in a warranty are construed against the drafter of the warranty.   Likewise, service contracts must fully, clearly, and conspicuously disclose their terms and conditions in simple and readily understood language.

Warrantors cannot require that only branded parts be used with the product in order to retain the warranty. This is commonly referred to as the “tie-in sales” provisions, and is frequently mentioned in the context of third-party computer parts, such as memory and hard drives.

Thus, you are free to use any fuel you wish, as long as it meets the qualifications as an approved motor fuel for use in the type engine (in this case combustion) you have purchased.  Since biodiesel purchased from a reputable, registered biodiesel supplier (like TBI) meets or exceeds the ASTM D6751 standard, the fuel can be used in any diesel engine without fear of voiding the warranty.

With biodiesel that meets the D-6751 specification, there have been over 45 million miles of successful, problem-free, real-world operation with B20 blends in a wide variety of engines, climates, and applications. The steps taken by the biodiesel industry to work with the engine companies and to ensure that fuel meets the newly accepted ASTM standards provides confidence to users and engine manufacturers that their biodiesel experiences will be positive and trouble-free.

For more information about biodiesel blends and engine warranties, see the NBB guidelines at:

Biodiesel Blends above 5% and engine warranties: http://www.biodiesel.org/pdf_files/B5_warranty_statement_32206.pdf

Biodiesel and OEM Warranties – http://www.biodiesel.org/resources/oems/

Biodiesel Myth #3 – I Don’t Want to be Stuck Just Running Biodiesel

In a multi-part series about biodiesel, this is one of several articles in an attempt to dispel the myths about biodiesel and it’s use in commercial and private diesel engines.

Myth #3 – I Don’t Want to be Stuck Just Running Biodiesel

Fine.  Don’t.  You don’t have to just run biodiesel.

In fact, you can switch back and forth as much as you want.  Biodiesel can be blended with diesel fuel in any concentration, and you can start and stop using it as much as you want.

Run on B20 for two weeks, then diesel for a month, then pure biodiesel for  month, then back to B20 for 6 months.  Your engine won’t care, and probably won’t notice.

You might, however. Your engine will likely run quieter and smoother on biodiesel and biodiesel blends, will smoke less, and you may see reduced engine oil sludge buildup over time.

You also may see a change in fuel economy.  This one is a bit slippery though.  Pure biodiesel (B99 or B100) has less BTU’s per gallon, which generally translates into lower fuel economy, or fewer MPGs, when using it (about 5% less).  However, when running biodiesel blends such as B50, B20, or B20, we get reports of customers actually seeing improved fuel economy because of the higher cetane and lubricity of biodiesel.  The engine has less friction, the fuel combusts easier, meaning higher efficiency.  Our own results have been mixed.  Some engines we see an improvement, some engines we see none or worse fuel economy.

Got smoke? Get biodiesel.

Biodiesel Myth #2 – Biodiesel Requires Engine Modification

In a multi-part series about biodiesel, this is one of several articles in an attempt to dispel the myths about biodiesel and it’s use in commercial and private diesel engines.

Myth #2 – Biodiesel Requires Engine Modification

We hear it all the time, “What do I need to do to my car or truck so I can run biodiesel?”

Our response, “Just pour it in your gas tank.”

Really, that’s it.  Unlike E85 ethanol which requires a “Flex Fuel” engine modification in order to burn ethanol, all diesel engines can run biodiesel.  Biodiesel is chemically compatible with diesel fuel, and the diesel engine running it doesn’t know the difference.  There are some minor exceptions to this, but most of them are not applicable to modern diesel engines.

All diesel engines manufactured after 1994 use seals and gaskets made of Viton, a chemical compound which is resistant to solvents in Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel fuel.  Turns out, biodiesel is mildly solvent as well, and Viton also resists biodiesel as well.  But, older diesel engines may still use Buna or Nitrile materials, which can be dissolved by biodiesel (and ULSD for that matter).  The effect can happen quickly with pure B100 biodiesel, sometimes in less than two tankfuls of biodiesel.

The solution is to simply run lower blends of biodiesel.  A B20 or B10 biodiesel blend is generally accepted as being compatible with all diesel engines, regardless of manufacture date.   The long term solution would be to replace the seals and gastkets with Viton, which, for engines made in the early 90’s or before, probably has already been done anyway (and they’re probably Viton!).

Other than the Viton issue, any diesel engine, boiler, or furnace that burns diesel fuel can use biodiesel or biodiesel blends.  No modification necessary.

Biodiesel Myth #1 – Biodiesel Cannot Be Used in Winter

In a multi-part series about biodiesel, this is the first of several articles in an attempt to dispel the myths about biodiesel and it’s use in commercial and private diesel engines.

Myth #1 – Biodiesel Cannot Be Used in Winter

While it is true that biodiesel can gel during the winter time, so can regular diesel.  The fact that biodiesel gels at a higher temperature than diesel fuel can be mitigated by adding the same anti-gel additives that are already added to regular diesel fuel in the winter time. All diesel fuel, petroleum or bio-based, gets anti-gel additives added to it in climate zones where the potential for gelling can occur.  In even colder climates, the fuel may be blended with #1 Diesel (kersosene) in order to reduce that gel point further.

There have been many studies showing biodiesel suitable for cold climates.

  • Yellowstone National Park powers about 300 vehicles, boilers and other diesel equipment using biodiesel, at least a B20 blend, all year round.
  • Brooklyn Park, MN has used biodiesel blends since 1999 in its fleet of over 100 vehicles, including fire trucks, utility and police vehicles.
  • Cranmore Mountain Resort, located in North Conway, NH, joined other ski resorts nationwide, such as Aspen, Colo., in fueling its snow grooming fleet with B20.
  • Harvard University has experienced great success with B20 for a number of years. Harvard’s 68 vehicle diesel fleet—which includes snow plows, shuttle buses, solid waste and recycling trucks, landscape services vehicles, tractors and pick-up trucks—relies on biodiesel year-round.

For very cold climates, we agree that B20 as the suggested blend to use for trouble free operation.  However, there have been some examples of using pure biodiesel in cold climates, but inline fuel heaters were used and are probably not common enough to recommend the general use of higher blends in cold climates.

Here in North Carolina, our fleet and personal vehicles run B99 all year around, without heated fuel filters or tank heaters.  Granted, we don’t get sub-zero winters here, but with our proprietary cold-soak biodiesel methods and anti-get additives in winter time, we have yet to have a failure, even on really cold February mornings.  We did significant testing last winter on our fuels and additives to ensure we would get the cold temperature fuel performance necessary to keep our biodiesel flowing and our customers rolling.

Furthermore, biodiesel is quite commonly used as home heating oil (as in our case for our furnace at our production facility).  Often mixed with diesel fuel, called Bioheat, this mixture is commonplace in the NorthEast for home heating oil.  We don’t typically sell much Bioheat, as heating oil has been largely replaced by natural gas in the eastern North Carolina counties.

For more information about cold weather use of biodiesel, see the NBB website’s resource brochure on cold weather biodiesel: http://www.biodiesel.org/pdf_files/fuelfactsheets/COLD_BIOFuelDistFactShtNOSOY.pdf

Why NC is not the place for biofuels compared to other states.

North Carolina, in spite of having a lofty goal stated in the North Carolina’s Strategic Plan for Biofuels Leadership that by 2017, 10% of liquid fuels sold in North Carolina will come from biofuels locally grown and produced”, is not the best place in the South to start a biofuels company.

Why?  Because other states have better incentives for you to build it there.   I recently had a discussion with a member from the NC Biofuels Center regarding what NC could do to provide better incentive for companies to build biofuel plants in NC.  I told him, simply, “Tell the NC legislature to just copy South Carolina’s”.  That’s it.  Really.

See, NC doesn’t have any production credits for biofuels producers, and no consumer credits for actually using it.  South Carolina does.  See:  http://www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/laws/state_summary/SC.  Specifically, retailers can get a .25 credit for every gallon of biodiesel sold in SC.  (That’s what Flying J was doing, selling our biodiesel at truck stops in South Carolina before the $1.00 per gallon federal tax credit expired, and Pilot bought them and canceled the program).

Biofuels Retail Incentive

Ethanol retailers selling fuel blends of at least 70% ethanol (E70) are eligible for a $0.05 incentive for each gallon of ethanol blended fuel sold, provided that the fuel is subject to the South Carolina motor fuel user fee. Additionally, biodiesel retailers are eligible for a $0.25 incentive for each gallon of biodiesel (B100) sold as pure biodiesel or as part of a biodiesel blend, provided that the blend contains at least 2% biodiesel (B2). These incentives apply only to fuel sold before July 1, 2012. Biodiesel fuel is defined as a fuel for motor vehicle diesel engines comprised of vegetable oils or animal fats and meeting ASTM specifications D6751 or D975. (Reference South Carolina Code of Laws 12-63-20)

This credit, all by itself, would provide a huge boost to retail sales of biodiesel (and ethanol, but we don’t care much about that at TBI since we only make biodiesel) in North Carolina.

Additionally, a producer tax credit, which would make us hugely competitive with neighboring states would also help us:

Biofuels Production Tax Credit

Qualified corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel producers are eligible for an income tax credit of $0.20 per gallon of fuel produced through 2016. Producers using feedstocks other than corn or soy oil are eligible for $0.30 per gallon tax credit. An eligible production facility must be operating at a production rate of at least 25% of its name plate design capacity and must maintain that production rate for at least six months, before denaturing, on or before December 31, 2011. The credit is allowed for up to 60 months beginning with the first month for which the facility is eligible to receive the credit and ending before December 31, 2016. Beginning January 1, 2017, the credit changes to $0.075 per gallon of fuel produced. The credit may be carried forward for ten years. Additional restrictions apply. (Reference South Carolina Code of Laws 12-6-3600)

This credit would help us offset the lack of a federal tax credit, and make us more competitive with other states that are importing biodiesel in to NC.  Remember that lofty goal I mentioned above?  It says that our 10% offset of liquid fuels in this state are to be “from biofuels locally grown and produced”.   We’re not doing that. The state of NC is currently purchasing biodiesel to meet it’s state contract obligations for biofuels by purchasing biodiesel that is made outside of NC.   Why?  Because it’s cheaper.

Oh, and South Carolina has a biodiesel mandate for all state owned vehicles:

State Agency Biodiesel Blend Mandate

All state-owned diesel fueling facilities must provide fuel containing at least 5% biodiesel (B5) at all diesel pumps. (Reference South Carolina Code of Laws 12-63-30)

If you’re a NC legislator and are reading this blog (please let me know! I’d be impressed), why isn’t North Carolina doing more to improve the production capacity of our own state biofuels plants?

If you’re just an ordinary tax-paying citizen like me.  Please call or write your state representative and ask them to “please copy South Carolina’s biofuels incentive program”, and point them to this blog article.  You can find your state representatives here: http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/house/house.html.  Look for “Who Represents Me?” down at the bottom right and enter your zip code.

Biodiesel Plants in US. Source NBB - 2006

B20 Biodiesel Use in Big Agriculture.

This article was taken from the National Biodiesel Board’s quote from “Today’s Trucking”, a Canadian trucking magazine. Of interesting note, the fuel is soy biodiesel, not Canola, which we expected when we first read the article.  Also noteworthy is their improved fuel economy when running the B20 blend.  We get this claim from customers quite often, but EPA, DOE, and industry claims say it isn’t so.  We beg to differ…

TODAY’S TRUCKING: The Family Fuel

When you run the biggest farming operation in northern Ontario, plus a busy 12-truck fleet, the price of fuel matters quite a lot. So saving even just a penny a liter is a big deal. And when you switch the fuel that powers your trucks and get an extra 200 km on a tankful, you’ve gained again.

The fuel in question is a B20 biodiesel blend.

That’s part of the story at Koch Farms and Koch Logistics in Earlton, Ont., about seven hours due north of Toronto.

Norm Koch runs this huge operation with the help of sons Rob and Chad, who share the operations load. Rob tends to deal more with another side of the business, namely with their grain elevator — and construction of same for other customers — while Chad hangs mostly around the farming end of things and looks after the machinery. But they all share the general load while, as Rob describes it, “Dad holds the gavel.”

It would be hard to define success any better than by describing what you see here. A thriving family enterprise by any measure.

And when I say “huge”, I mean it. Norm farms 11,000 cash-crop acres, not all of them owned. Asked about the farm equipment fleet, he says he has “a bunch of combines” by which he means seven of the giants. There’s also a pair of multi-wheeled, 400-hp Case IH Steiger tractors, brutish things that could probably pull a dozen tree stumps out of the ground at the same time. Plus more smaller tractors and other equipment than they can count.

And those monster Steiger tractors are using 200 fewer liters a day on the B20 biodiesel that Koch has been using for nearly two years now, supplied by FS Partners, based in Stratford, Ont.

That sounds like a lot but doesn’t actually mean much until you realize that fuel consumption went from 700 litres down to 500 right away. A staggering drop in consumption that’s been consistent from the start.

“We noticed that saving in the first two weeks,” says Rob, adding that they were astonished. Not least because all they were looking for was a cheaper fuel at a time when the cost of straight diesel had risen pretty high and was looking like going higher.

Nowadays, the soybean-based B20 blend that FS supplies to the Koch operation is about a penny a liter cheaper than ordinary diesel, but this past spring the difference was about three cents. Ironically, given that price was the initial impetus for the biodiesel switch, it’s now irrelevant.

“We don’t even look at the cost any more, because the other benefits are bigger,” says Rob.

“The cost of biodiesel is slightly less,” adds Norm, “but even if it was more, we’d be fine.”

THE TRUCK FLEET

Koch runs a small but always busy fleet of 12 trucks, including nine Kenworths, a pair of older Western Stars, and a lone Peterbilt. All future purchases will be Kenworths, says Norm.

For the most part they pull B-trains with their own agricultural products but they haul customer loads as well. Three of the Kenworths are 2008/09 models running 2007-spec Cummins 525 engines in front of Eaton Fuller 18-speed gearboxes. Most of the older trucks are Caterpillar-powered.

The trucks were not the target when the biodiesel idea first arose, though there was some concern about the lubricity of ultra-low-sulphur diesel, such that they used an additive to combat it.

When the biodiesel proved itself in the farm machinery, they switched it to the trucks as well. And given that the B20 is inherently more slippery than straight diesel, they were able to dispense with the additive.

The increase in fuel economy is real, though they haven’t measured it precisely. They’ve been consistently getting an extra 200 km on a full load of fuel, and all their trucks have twin 150-gal (U.S.) tanks. That’s about 1,135 liters in total. Not a bad gain at all.

Asked how he likes the biodiesel switch in the trucks now that they’ve had a little over a year and one winter with the fuel, Norm says he’s pretty pleased.

“Things have gone well,” he says. “The three newer trucks especially do well, it seems. Much better fuel economy.

“Our understanding was that the biodiesel would mostly help the older engines, with less smoke and that, but it seems to be helping the newer ones more.”

The Kochs of Earlton are doing just fine the way things are.

There’s lots of smart money betting on the latter “second generation” biofuels, but there’s at least one family in northern Ontario that doesn’t need to look that far ahead.

The Koch fleet had no issues with the new fuel this past winter, though the blend was changed from B20 down to B5 through the cold months. In fact, Tom O’Neill of FS Partners, who manages the Koch fuel business, takes a conservative approach to the fuel he delivers to the 45,500-liter tank in the Earlton yard.

“Everything’s been running fine on B20,” O’Neill says, “but I made the call last week to cut them back to B5 as we’re already getting into colder temperatures up there.”

He notes that another of his customers, Rainbow Concrete in Sudbury, Ont., is “very forward-thinking” and has actually been running its fleet lately on B100 biofuel — that’s essentially pure soybean oil, no diesel in the mix at all.

“We got them up to B50 in the summer of 2009, then cut them back to B5 for the winter,” O’Neill explains. “This year we went to B60, then B70, then B80, and then the last load was B100.”

Last month, the fleet had 10 days experience with the B100 non-blend and there’d been no hiccups.

“They’ve got me awful nervous,” he admits with a chuckle, “but they’ve had no issues so far.”

ONLY ONE GLITCH

Getting back to the Koch operation, they’ve suffered only one small glitch in their biodiesel experience, and it was easily remedied.

Tom O’Neill reports that last fall there was a mysterious algae formation in one of the dyed-fuel storage tanks used not for the trucks but for the farm equipment. It was a steel tank — the clear-fuel truck tank is concrete — but there’s no obvious reason why that distinction should matter.

In any case the 25,000-liter tank was emptied and cleaned aggressively and the problem hasn’t come back. Being his conservative self again, O’Neill was just about to head up to Earlton to do another cleaning when we last spoke in September. Better safe than sorry, he figures.

THE BIODIESEL FUTURE

For all the success that Norm Koch and his sons are having with biodiesel, and that’s clearly quite a lot, the fuel’s future is a little cloudy. At least as far as crop-based variants are concerned.

Biodiesel proponents answer one common charge — that fuel sourced from soybeans, for example, plunders food resources — by saying that the edible components of the soybean are left intact after the oil is extracted, meaning no loss on the food front.

But it may not be enough. For one thing, most folks agree that there isn’t anything like enough land to make these first-generation biofuels broadly useful.

There are indeed laws in place to promote their use, however, and there are many commercial-vehicle operations — especially some municipalities — that swear by it.

The feds passed a bill two years ago mandating a five-percent renewable content in gasoline by 2010 and two-percent renewable content in diesel fuel and heating oil by 2012. The source of that “renewable content” wasn’t specified.

Critics traditionally cite the cold-weather gelling problem and maybe filter plugging with biodiesel, but there’s now a fair bit of evidence to suggest that with the right fuel and with proper management, the winter issue is a non-starter. The Koch experience is but one case in point.

Tom O’Neill, biased though he would obviously be, is adamant about this angle.

“Biodiesel acts similar to ethanol in gasoline,” he says. “It cleans the walls of every tank and fuel system it touches so proper filtering is a must.

“The gelling problem is either too much too late or too much too early,” he goes on. “You must blend the product in accordance with the weather. If the blend is too high you will gel up, guaranteed.”

O’Neill allows that there have been some such problems in the company’s own fleet, which runs B40 and beyond, and in some customer trucks as well.

“I’m not saying we haven’t had issues but they have been very, very minimal and a high blend or a dirty tank was the problem every time and was corrected with very little hardship,” he says.

All of that said, the long-term future of crop-based biodiesel is not quite as strong as it once looked like becoming.

For one, variations on the natural gas theme have taken the spotlight recently and that’s likely to continue. But there’s been an enormous amount of research done on other “bio” sources — organic waste and “woody” biomass, for example, even algae-sourced oils for the longer term — and the requisite manufacturing processes.