Biodiesel has been presented to this society as an aid to solve our energy problems.   Bio diesel, its production, basic chemical and physical nature present some very unfortunate problems as a matter of fact. Ultimately the insanity of burning food for fuel will become apparent to all and come to an end.

Biodiesel is typically made from a chemical reaction called trans-esterification.   Trans-esterification generally is the joining of two dissimilar organic compounds as an ester.  Typically the reactants are soy bean oil and methanol in the presence of a catalyst.  Animal fat may also be used as a reactant.  The products are bio diesel, an ester, and glycerin, a waste product.

All esters are “polar” molecules which have uneven electron charges.   Polar molecules are good solvents.  Consequently, bio diesel will remove varnish and sludge that may be in existing systems that previously used petro diesel fuel.  While on the surface this might be a good thing, the introduction of bio diesel may cause fuel filters etc. to become plugged and some rubber gaskets to dissolve. 

Because of its superior solvent characteristics, it will dissolve rubber piping, gaskets or latex materials.  You may need to replace existing lines, gaskets and seals with new materials such as Teflon, or EPDM etc.  Gaskets of rubber, PVC, Cork, leather and plastic will also need to be replaced as they will destruct. 

The oxygen in esters attracts water which is similar with its own oxygen atom.   Water may be found in bio diesel for other reasons.  While every attempt is made to remove all water from the fuel, it still exists, albeit in small quantities.  Nothing about water helps any fuel.  The greatest problem is that the water has to be vaporized when the fuel is combusted.  Water has one of the highest heats of vaporization known to man.  The consequence is fewer miles per gallon.

Water in the fuel attracts Oxygen from the air.  This oxygen through catalytic action promotes rust on any iron or steel that may come into contact with the fuel. 

Historically diesel fuel has been about 50-60 cents per gallon cheaper than gasoline.  Currently diesel fuel is about 20-30 cents per gallon more expensive than gasoline.  Why?  EPA rules.  After Dec 1, 2010 all diesel sold in the US is what is called Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD).  Refiners had to construct refineries that had high pressure units that caused hydrogen gas to react with and saturate available double bonds in the fuel and remove Sulfur as hydrogen sulfide gas.  Three characteristics of this resulting “paraffinic” fuel were to (1) reduce the lubricity of the fuel oil and (2) increase the pour point and (3) be more expensive.    These new refinery units had to use expensive stainless steels because the reactors, piping and some vessels had to operate at temperatures up to 1500 oF range and 2000 psi pressure.    Raising the pour point meant that fuels that were liquid at say -20 oF would now gel at say +10 oF.  This could cause many problems in the winter time.  The consequence was that we now had more expensive fuel that could more easily gel if you were not careful, such as buying fuel in Texas and shutting the truck down in a cold winter day in Northern Illinois. You might not be able to restart the engine.  The pour point problem has been modified by adding expensive, toxic and exotic pour point depressants.   Some of these anti-gelling pour point depressants may contain small amounts of toxic aromatic compounds, usually xylene or toluene and must be handled with care

The only reason why bio diesel is used is due to government subsidies and regulations.  Ironically whenever something is beneficial the government has to mandate it.  Just like seat belts, if it were so wonderful, economics and the free market would support it.  Take the subsidies away and the insanity will come to an immediate end.

As with all things there are winners and losers.  The winners are the chemical industry and the few people who receive jobs from this activity.  While promised as a tax generating activity, typically these institutions gain property tax amnesty for a number of years as well as other perks such as free land etc.   The lawyer-lobbyists in Washington DC, who lobby Congress against the best interests of the American people, also profit.  The chemical industry gets to use unwanted methanol and convert it into bio diesel at a greatly increased price.  The government subsidies only help to make millionaires richer.  You did not think that these ventures were designed as an altruistic activity to help society.  Crop farmers receive higher prices for their corn and soybeans.  State and federal governments will receive increased motor fuel taxes because ethanol and bio diesel provide less energy per gallon.  Motorists and truckers will require more (gallons) of fuel for the same amount of mileage. 

The losers are (1) the American taxpayer who has to pay subsidies to a small group of capitalists and pay higher prices for food (2) the motoring public who is forced to use inferior chemicals for fuels and be subject to higher maintenance costs to operate a vehicle (3) the beef, sheep, chicken and horse farmers who are forced to pay higher prices for grain (4) the jobs destroyed due to government allocation of resources, some jobs became uneconomical due to the subsidies and were discontinued or never created.  This is similar the “stimulus” bill that only will serve to reduce the overall number of jobs (5) the large amount of water taken from the aquifer to operate the plant and the waste generated from this activity not to mention insecticides and herbicides required to grow the plants.  

The insanity of burning food as fuel will come to an end.  Expected higher food prices will spotlight this activity.  In January 2007, 100,000 people demonstrated in Mexico City over the price of tortillas made from corn.   The Egyptian revolution was set in motion by increases in the price of food.  Congress needs to repeal laws that compel the use of crops and grains for bio fuels and pay subsidies for their use or we will suffer the consequences.   

It is just a matter of time before bio fuels come to an end.  All we need is some kind of disappointing crop harvest.  Food prices will soar and the first target will be bio fuels.  As it becomes more necessary to reduce the Federal budget, bio fuels subsidies will also be shown to be an extravagance.

The dramatic decrease in crude oil prices in 2015 has effectively ended the production of bio diesel because it is economically unproductive.

Russell Walker P.E.