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Carolina biodiesel low-down: explore the benefits and limits of veggie fuel with Brian Winslet.

So you've probably heard of biodiesel by now, right? You may still be wondering exactly what the stuff is made of, or you may have heard something about french-fry oil. Biodiesel is a non-toxic biodegradable group of molecules call fatty acid methyl esters. It is made by reacting any plant- or animal-based fat with alcohol. It can be made from virgin oil, used fryer oil from restaurants, and even tallow from meat processing facilities. Western North Carolina alone annually produces two million gallons of waste fryer oil.

Now that you know what it is, how can you use it? Biodiesel can be put directly into the tank of any diesel vehicle. Contrary to popular belief, no modification to the vehicle is required. Your emissions will improve by seventy-five percent almost immediately just by using non-blended biodiesel. The fuel can be blended with diesel fuel at any ratio, which makes using biodiesel simple. The highest blend the industry is supporting currently is B20. This means the fuel is 20 percent biodiesel mixed with 80 percent petro-diesel. However, any diesel engine is completely compatible with B100, or one hundred percent biodiesel. The original diesel engine was actually designed by Rudolf Diesel to bum peanut oil.

Why should I use biodiesel? There are numerous reasons to use biodiesel. Mainly, it's non-toxic, biodegradable, non-harmful to aquatic ecosystems, virtually non-flammable, domestically and locally produced, substantially reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and reduces air pollution by nearly seventy-five percent. Diesel engines are more efficient than gasoline engines, typically getting twenty-five to forty percent fuel economy per gallon burned. From a purely economic stand point, biodiesel may not seem attractive at its $2.75 to $3.50 price tag found at retail pumps selling B100. However, looking solely at the direct cost ignores many externalized costs. Petroleum is heavily subsidized and therefore the price is far greater than what you pay at the pump. The recent energy bill that just passed is a blatant example of just how much dirty fuels are subsidized. Tacking on health care costs due to asthma, lowered forest and crop production, and accelerated weathering of building finishes due to air pollution, and revenue lost to overseas oil producers, it becomes increasingly clear that petroleum fuels really cost upwards of $4.00 per gallon. Some even estimate up to $7.00 per gallon.

There must be some cons, right? Biodiesel has a few major pitfalls. Primarily, it's difficult to use B100 in the wintertime due to fuel gelling at temperatures below the mid-thirties on the Fahrenheit scale. Blending the fuel with diesel eliminates this problem during winter use. From an ecological point of view, biodiesel does require land to grow the oil-producing crop. As for the terrestrial environment, mono-cropped genetically modified soy crops do present environmental concerns. Soybeans are also a very low producer of oil at forty-nine gallons annually per acre. However, the soy industry has placed a major stake in biodiesel and plans to continue pushing for soy oil as the major feedstock. Canola, Europe's temperate climate oil crop of choice, produces one hundred twenty-seven gallons per acre. Palm oil is one of the best terrestrial producers at six hundred thirty-five gallons per acre. On the top of the list is algae, the highest oil producer. The future may see algae used to treat our sewage water, yielding lipids for biodiesel production.

Some sources estimate that total US crop production would have to double to meet our current fuel demands for the transportation sector. This expansion of agriculture could squeeze out even more of our shrinking ecosystems. Biodiesel is certainly not the holy grail of sustainability, but it is a wiser choice that is available immediately. However, changes in lifestyle, improved efficiency of automobiles, public transportation, and smart-growth are equally important.

Where can you find biodiesel? Biodiesel is rapidly becoming more widely available nationally. There is a map and listing of biodiesel pumps across the nation that can be found at On the home page, click on the "Traveling" icon. North Carolina has a handful of B20 pumps in the Raleigh-Durham area. Piedmont Biofuels is currently is the only provider selling B100 outside the Asheville area. Here in Asheville, Blue Ridge Biofuels Cooperative just opened the first public biodiesel pump in the western portion of the state, selling B99. Directions are available on the above-mentioned website.

Biodiesel is unique in that it's attractive to both the socially conscious as well as the corporate investor. Nationally, there is a duel biodiesel movement happening simultaneously. There is a grassroots movement as well as a large industrial corporate effort backed by the National Biodiesel Board. Both have helped one another to varying degrees, but don't exactly blend together comfortably. One group sees energy liberty for the individual; the other sees profit margins, while both groups realize the benefits of energy independence and lowered environmental impacts.

Here is Lyle Estill's take on the "The Small Producer's Dilemma." Lyle is "VIP of Stuff" from Piedmont Biofuels Cooperative: "There have long been tensions between the National Biodiesel Board and small biodiesel producers. Let's face it. They are different populations entirely. One is older, secure, and interested in 'return on investment'. The other is in their twenties, horrified, and likely to have a pierced nipple. Those of us who are involved in 'backyard brewing', which involves collecting waste vegetable oil from local restaurants, making fuel out of it, and driving down the road, are often uncomfortable with some of the concepts put forth by the 'biodiesel industry'. And conversely, the 'biodiesel industry' is easily made uncomfortable by us. We are strange bedfellows. The grassroots biodiesel movement speaks to the BIO0 user--that is, the small consumer who is interested in running down the road on one hundred percent biodeisel. Yet the biodiesel industry largely speaks for soy oil. Their target is fleets, especially government fleets, that are running on blends--that is, two percent to twenty percent biodiesel blended with petroleum diesel."

Unfortunately, it seems that the corporate effort may be surpassing that of the grassroots movement across the nation. Many people fear grassroots. People are more comfortable with big corporations than they are with people who are meeting their own fuel needs. Conferences are being increasingly dominated by commercial and industry voices.

This is where North Carolina is possibly different. Two of the three major biodiesel production facilities are being built by the grassroots movement. Blue Ridge Biofuels in Asheville and Piedmont Biofuels in Pittsboro have been selected by the NC State Energy Office to receive rather large grants for biodiesel production. North Carolina just may be the state that proves that local grassroots efforts can organize and mobilize big positive changes. Both of these grassroots groups represent a more holistic and humane business model that supports something fundamental about being human. So far, biodiesel grassroots in North Carolina may just be staying neck and neck with the old-school dog-eat-dog for-profit oil businesses.

Don't have a diesel yet, but you Still want to help do your part? Support ethanol blends when they become available in North Carolina and change your driving habits.

Brian Winslett is one of the eight board of directors at the Blue Ridge Biofuels Cooperative. He graduated from UNCA with a degree in Environmental Studies and Chemistry. He has lived in Asheville for seven years and has played a leadership role in alternative energy research, as well as several environmental projects throughout the region. Blue Ridge Biofuels can be found at or ernail questions to, 828-253-1034.


Emissions from your tailpipe vary drastically according to your driving and engine warm up style. In fact, how you drive often has a greater impact on your emissions than the fuel you choose to burn in your vehicle (for both gasoline and diesel engines).

Driving Style

Imagine two basic driver types:

* Aggressive Driver: Accelerates quickly, often maximizing the engine's capabilities

* Zen Driver: Accelerates incredibly slowly Accelerating aggressively emits ten to twenty times more pollution per quantity of fuel consumed than accelerating slowly and conservatively. Additionally, your fuel economy drops dramatically, to levels as low as two miles per gallon from heavy acceleration. Allowing your vehicle to slow down slightly while ascending large hills instead of depressing the accelerator to maintain the same speed will dramatically reduce emissions as well.

Engine Warm Up

Excessive warm up times (longer than one minute) do nothing to increase engine life, while polluting heavily. The best scenario for both engine life and emissions is to warm up your car for twenty to forty seconds, then drive very conservatively until your engine reaches its standard temperature range as shown on your instrument panel. Even better, use a block or dipstick heater for your diesel engine before starting.
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Title Annotation:efficiency
Author:Winslet, Brian
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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