Diesel Electric Hybrids Not New

Diesel engines have often been derided as loud and foul smelling in the United States, but in Europe diesels have long been popular. Over the past five years, a new generation of clean cars has emerged, and the newest iterations are only getting better. Next year, Peugeot and Mercedes will introduce the first diesel-hybrid vehicles to the mass market. Volvo and Peugeot will follow suit with plug-in versions in 2012 and 2014.

But, they won’ t be available here in the US.  At least, they won’t without a significant overhaul to the US EPA’s Air Emissions policy for Cars and Light Trucks in the United States (Oh, and don’t forget our friends at the CARB).   The EPA puts such onerous restrictions on diesel air emissions and engine testing, most foreign manufacturers won’t bother to jump through the hoops to export them to the USA.  Only Mercedes, VW, and Audi do that.  We’re missing out on dozens of other small, efficient, diesel powered cars that could run circles around a Prius in terms of MPG.

Diesel Electric Hybrids are not new.  Locomotives have been using the technology for over 60 years.   In a Diesel-electric train, the

The FIRST Diesel-Electric Hybrid

Diesel engine drives an electrical generator whose output provides power to the traction motors. There is no mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels.  This is a critical difference between diesel-electric trains and hybrid cars, as the engine is used to drive the wheels when the batteries become exhausted.

We want diesel-electric hybrid.  They are a proven technology, and instead of getting 40-50 MPG as in a Prius or Insight, you can realize MPG rates of 70-80 MPG.  Couple that with a biodiesel powered engine, and you would have a Very Low Emissions vehicle that could have incredible range.

Instead of forcing auto-makers to make internal combustion engines more and more complicated, requiring additional systems to increase efficiency and reduce emissions, why not just modify the fuels and the technology to something that already exists?  Are you listening EPA?   Simply switching to biodiesel will reduce the air emissions, and using diesel-electric hybrids would increase the range dramatically.  Imagine a small 3 cylinder diesel that would run at 1800 RPM (a very efficient range for diesel motors) that would sip fuel at .25 to .40 gallons per hour while generating the power needed to run the car and charge batteries?

Or, to put it more simply, why don’t the EPA and CARB accept a car that is certified to meet the air emissions requirements in Europe and Asia (which are far more densely populated and environmentally sensitive in many cases)?  If it’s good enough to meet their stringent air quality requirements, it should be good enough here.    Or am I missing something?

Diesel Electric Train Diagram

As an example of what we could get today, if the market would allow it: Volkswagen says their Golf TDI Hybrid consumes 3.4 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers, which is about 71.4 mpg. That’s better than the gas-electric Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid by better than 20 mpg.

VW Golf TDI Hybrid Electric Car

Biodiesel Myth #8 – Biodiesel Emissions Are No Better Than Regular Diesel

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 #8 – Biodiesel Emissions Are No Better Than Regular Diesel

Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel that has completed all the testing requirements of the Clean Air Act. Biodiesel contains oxygen and it burns more completely than diesel fuel, resulting in reduced emissions. All major pollutants are reduced dramatically in biodiesel exhaust (most of them at least 50% for B100), except one—nitrogen oxides (NOx)—and that’s only for blends over B20 (see my post on the subject).  In fact, NOx emissions from biodiesel increase or decrease depending on the engine family and testing procedures. NOx emissions (a contributing factor in the localized formation of smog and ozone) from pure (100%) biodiesel increase on average by 10 percent.  However, biodiesel’s lack of sulfur allows the use of NOx control technologies that cannot be used with conventional diesel. Additionally, some companies have successfully developed additives to reduce NOx emissions in biodiesel blends.  In fact, in certain independent studies using more modern engines than the EPA study have shown that biodiesel use actually reduced NOx emissions.

The most common report when users switch to biodiesel is the noticeable decrease in diesel smoke (the black, sooty clouds). B20 reduces air toxics (the most damaging pollutants for human health) by 20-40%, while B100 reduces them by as much as 90%. Sulfur oxides and sulfates (major contributors to acid rain) are almost completely eliminated. The only caveat is that nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions can increase up to 10% with B100. If you would like to evaluate this for yourself, see the National Biodiesel Board’s emissions fact sheet.

New diesel technology like the Mercedes BlueTec and the 2009 Jetta TDI eliminate this problem by reducing NOx emissions by 80-90%.

All-in-all, biodiesel offers such a substantial reduction in emissions that it’s frequently used in sensitive areas like national parks and marine habitats. School districts all over the country have also turned to biodiesel as a way to reduce children’s’ exposure to toxic diesel exhaust.

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

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.

Pennsylvania trying to tax biodiesel.

A Biodiesel Magazine article reports about legislators in Pennsylvania trying to pass an amendment, SB 901, which seeks to impose a new fuel tax on businesses that sell biodiesel fuel by amending the state’s Biofuel Development and In-State Production Incentive Act of 2008.

Ironically, the geniuses in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives are intending to use the fees to support the state Department of Agriculture’s enforcement of the on-road B2 mandate that took effect in May. The amended legislation establishes a total of four of these registration fees:

– $5,000 for each biodiesel manufacturing facility within the state
– $5,000 for each location within the state where biodiesel is blended
– $100 for a person, other than a person that operates at a biodiesel production or blending facility, that sells, offers sale or otherwise transfers biodiesel or a biodiesel blend within the state, whether or not the that person operates a location within Pennsylvania where such activities are conducted
– $100 for each location, in excess of one, within Pennsylvania where a registered person sells, offers for sale or otherwise transfers title of biodiesel or a biodiesel blend.

Stupid is as stupid does, to quote Forrest Gump. One has to look no further than Germany to see where Merkel imposed a tax on biodiesel that has all but killed biodiesel in that country.

The biodiesel economy, and indeed the entire biofuels economy, is in a weakened state because of our lack of leadership on the federal level to renew the biofuels tax credits that they let expire. Add stupid legislation like this, and we can almost guarantee that not only will nobody be able to produce biodiesel, nobody will want to sell it either.

Oil Industry Gains Billions of Dollars in Government Subsidies

I bet their subsidy doesn’t have to be renewed every year…

From the AllGov website:

Oil industry lobbyists are decrying a proposed new tax on the industry to pay for the cleanup of the Gulf of Mexico disaster—while at the same time their clients reap huge subsidies from the federal government.

An investigation by The New York Times led to the conclusion that the oil industry is “among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks available at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.”

For instance, BP was able to write off 70% of the cost of leasing the Deepwater Horizon oil platform from owner Transocean.

A report by the Congressional Budget Office from 2005 showed the industry pays about 9% tax on oil field leases and drilling equipment—“significantly lower than the overall rate of 25% for businesses in general and lower than virtually any other industry, wrote The New York Times.

Total tax breaks for the oil industry average $4 billion a year.

More government regulation and reporting

Well, I was just joking with someone about the amount of government oversight and regulation that is in the biodiesel business being as bad as if we were producing weapons grade plutonium, and here I get a call from the IRS today telling me that there is yet another monthly reporting requirement coming up that is mandatory for biodiesel plants.

Aren’t they ALL mandatory and required by law with a civil penalty attached for non-compliance? I mean, if they weren’t we wouldn’t do them, right?!

So this report, which I have yet to actually see the form, is required to help the IRS track where the fuel I produce is sold and distributed to and for what purpose. Honestly. This really IS starting to sound like we produce nuclear material.

Folks, I make biodiesel. It’s non-toxic, biodegradable, carbon neutral, and clean burning. The only thing more safe to use, transport, and clean burning is wood.

We’re a small plant. We make a million gallons of biodiesel a year, that’s a drop in the ocean for petroleum products sold in the US. Yet I spend over two full days a month now doing NOTHING but mandatory government reporting. Enough already.  How about actually doing something to promote and increase my business and welfare for a change?

Earth Day News from the NBB

With Earth Day here, I thought it slightly ironic that the biodiesel tax credit still has not been passed, yet a large gathering in the National Mall in Washing DC is underway.  Earth Day is about climate change.  Biodiesel certainly has it’s place there since it burns much cleaner than petroleum diesel, but biodiesel is much more than that too.  It’s domestic, produced here in the USA.  It’s non-toxic and very safe to use and transport.  It’s biodegradable.   It’s a drop in replacement for existing fuel, no huge infrastructure changes required, and (by some accounts) if it were as heavily subsidized as petroleum, would be damn near free.   Congress is claiming that the tax credit will be passed by the Memorial Day recess.  Here’s hoping…

From the NBB:

Jefferson City, Mo. – With the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day upon us, it is imperative that Congress move immediately to ensure the survival of America’s first advanced biofuel – biodiesel.

“Lawmakers need look no further than the National Mall to see cleaner-burning biodiesel at work powering generators this Earth Day,” said National Biodiesel Board (NBB) CEO Joe Jobe.  “Not only does biodiesel have the best greenhouse gas reduction of any domestic transportation fuel, but also it is the only advanced biofuel currently in the U.S. commercial marketplace.”

In recognition of Earth Day, the National Biodiesel Board is urging Members of Congress to reinstate the biodiesel tax incentive immediately.  Since the credit lapsed on December 31, 2009, domestic biodiesel production has plummeted to nearly a standstill.  One of the most successful energy policy initiatives ever enacted, the program makes biodiesel price competitive with petroleum diesel.

The biodiesel tax credit allows the U.S. to reap the significant environmental benefits associated with the sustainable fuel, including:

Biodiversity: Biodiesel is the most diverse fuel on the planet, made from a wide variety of oil and fat by-products of regional crop and livestock production.

Regional diversity: More than 150 biodiesel plants support green jobs and green investment in nearly all 50 states, producing fuel from regionally available resources.

Carbon reduction: Last year, biodiesel’s contribution to reducing greenhouse gas was the equivalent of removing over 774,000 passenger vehicles from America’s roadways.

Energy balance: Biodiesel produces 4.5 units of energy for every 1 unit it takes to make the fuel, boasting the highest energy balance, and the highest energy content of any American-made renewable fuel.

Both the House and Senate have passed bills to retroactively extend the biodiesel tax credit.  However, the two chambers must still reconcile the differences between the two versions of the bill before it can be sent to the President.

Biodiesel Sampls

Soy Biodiesel Lab Samples

The Case for Soy

With the recent crazy pricing for Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO), we have begun to analyze looking at alternative feedstocks (remember when WVO was an alternative feedstock?). I developed a spreadsheet where I could plug in the price per lb of the feedstock and the conversion efficiency of that feedstock based upon FFA, moisture, and glycerin value. What I quickly discovered was that virgin soy currently has a higher value than WVO as a biodiesel feedstock! Don’t believe me? Follow the math.

Crude Degummed Soybean Oil – < 1% FFA, < 1% MIU
WVO Yellow Grease – 7% FFA, < 4% MIU

Cost FOB Per lb Per gal
Soy $       0.40 $       3.00
WVO $       0.28 $       2.10

Looking at the material costs only, not overhead (additives, labor, production costs),  the table below shows the cost of the feedstock, raw materials and the costs needed due to the conversion factor of the feedstock (due to the impurities in the WVO, and it takes more methanol and catalyst to process WVO).

Per Gal to process Soy
Feedstock $       3.00 $       2.42
Methanol $       0.23 $       0.40
Catalyst $       0.10 $       0.15
Wash $       0.02 $       0.04
Total COGS $       3.35 $       3.01

So far this makes sense, Soy costs more, so it costs more to make biodiesel.  Right?  But wait.  The value of B100 (as of today) made from soy is more than WVO, and the glycerin purity is higher and worth more.  Thus, per gallon, the total value per gallon of soy biodiesel is higher than WVO.

B100 Value $       3.52 $       2.94
Glycerin Value $       0.22 $       0.11
Recovered MeOH $       0.02 $       0.06
Total Value $       3.76 $       3.11
Profit $       0.41 $       0.10

So something is clearly wrong when the Jacobsen report is showing WVO at .28 per lb for WVO and Virgin Soy is at .40.  This, at a time when B99 biodiesel is selling cheaper than petroleum diesel fuel.   Something is very wrong in Kansas, and our congress just sit on their hands.  So, for now, we’re buying Soy.  If you’re selling WVO, get your pricing right, or don’t bother calling us.

Soybean Oil for Biodiesel Feedstock.

Biodiesel Tax Credit Delays and Impact on Industry

Well, just as the NBB predicted, the Senate and House delays on reinstating the federal tax credit for biodiesel has caused the biodiesel industry to grind to a halt. I got a call yesterday from another company in NC that is going out of business. That makes three total within 6 months.

We’re still here. We’re still producing biodiesel every day, although in much less capacity than before. As far as I can tell, we’re the only biodiesel plant in North Carolina that is still actively producing truckload quantities of biodiesel. Our price is still roughly the same, about $.60 per gallon higher than petroleum diesel fuel.

North Carolina could help by adding additional tax incentives to biodiesel like many other states already do, but so far, nothing appears to be happening at the state level. We’re hearing rumblings that the US Senate may be getting something approved in the next several weeks. What we’re hoping for is a multi-year tax incentive that is retroactive back to January 1st. Anything less than that puts us right back in the same situation next year and will only further to inhibit the growth of renewable fuels like biodiesel.