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Is biodiesel really good for the North? The technology may still be too "green" to make economical sense in our region.

I have learned one thing from 20 years of working as a graduate student and then as a scientist: There is nothing new under the sun. Most of the so called new discoveries have been made elsewhere at a different time by another person.

Biodiesel, the new kid on the block of green fuels, is one of those examples.

A few months ago United States President George W. Bush said he wanted to grow fuels on his ranch in Texas. He was perfectly in line with Rudolf Diesel's thinking, but slightly off base by a hundred odd years.

Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913) was granted a patent for the invention of the diesel engine in 1892. Back then, he ran his engine on peanut oil. Diesel wanted to make an engine that could run on vegetable oil instead of the new gasoline that was used in cars. His goal was noble. He wanted farmers to grow their own fuels.

Diesel's notion of using vegetable oil didn't take off until recently.

There are three compelling reasons that keep us from pouring canola oil into our gas tanks.

The gasoline engine works through the ignition of vaporized gasoline with sparks from spark plugs. But vegetable oil isn't volatile enough to from a combustible gas in the engine. It will never ignite with a spark plug. It's just not as volatile as gas.

Rudolf Diesel's engine resolved this issue. He created an engine that compresses the fuel to such an extent that it combusts on its own. No need for a spark plug, the compression of the fuel sets off combustion.

Diesel fuel has been much cheaper than vegetable oil ever since the diesel engine was invented. And so, it was the logical choice for the diesel engine. Even now, cheap vegetable oil costs roughly $1.25 per litre off the supermarket shelves.

It's not efficient to burn straight vegetable oil in a diesel engine. The oil is too viscous and it doesn't burn completely. In the long run vegetable oil gums the injector (that's a piece of equipment that injects the fuel under high pressure in the diesel) and it leaves soot in the engine. Winter complicates things much further. In cold temperatures, vegetable oil becomes so viscous that it plugs the fuel filter.

The biodiesel people have found a way to reduce the viscosity of vegetable oil in cold temperatures by chemically altering the molecules of the fat in the oil. They call it biodiesel because the resulting liquid has a chemical structure that resembles petrodiesel. It's pale yellow and has a faint smell.


In summertime, straight biodiesel can be burned safely and engine manufacturers guarantee their engines if the biodiesel used meets certain standards defined by the Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers. In winter months, biodiesel can be mixed with petrodiesel for up to 10 per cent (90 per cent petrodiesel and 10 per cent biodiesel) before viscosity is an issue on those cold mornings in Timmins. This was demonstrated in the BioBus project in Montreal. A fleet of 155 city buses was run on different biodiesel mixes over a period of one year ( There is no doubt that biodiesel works.

The biodiesel people have also found out that it is not economical to make biodiesel from pure vegetable oil without farming subsidies. Instead, they use the waste oil and fat from restaurants and rendering plants.

Biodiesel is a much cleaner burning fuel than petrodiesel. Its combustion results in fewer unburned hydrocarbons, less carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter. As well, it has lubricating properties that increase engine life.

Biodiesel is gaining large-scale acceptance in Europe and in the United States where subsidies to farmers make it price-competitive. Biodiesel is seen as a means to reduce dependence on fossil fuel imports.

In Canada, the industry is taking its first steps with an anticipated production capacity of roughly 100 million litres per annum, which is a drop in the bucket as compared to the 42 billion-litre market for petrodiesel.

In Ontario, biodiesel (100 per cent pure) benefits from two tax holidays: a 14.3-cent holiday on the road tax from the Government of Ontario on diesel fuel and 4 cents a litre of taxes imposed by the federal government. With these tax breaks, biodiesel begins to be price-competitive with petrodiesel.

Is biodiesel really the thing for the North? Most definitely, and particularly for the forest industry. It takes approximately 13 litres of petrodiesel fuel to harvest and deliver a cubic metre of lumber to a lumber yard. A small discount on the cost of fuel could go a long way to help the forest industry. This would provide improved margins to struggling logging and trucking contractors, and give a bit of breathing room to forest companies.

Why don't we do more biodiesel then? In 2003 the cost of a barrel of oil was roughly half of what it is now and there was really no incentive to develop this fuel until today.

Arguably, the cost of petrodiesel will continue to increase as cheap oil runs out. So there may be a time when vegetable oil will be cheaper than petrodiesel. The biodiesel people are betting their money on this. However, there is no consensus among stock and securities analysts. Some think the world's economy will slow down and the global demand for oil will ease up. Some think the combined effect of terrorist activities, instability in the Middle East and economic growth in China will keep oil demand and prices up.

It's hard to tell if biodiesel will take in the North. But at this point in time, it cannot be marketed solely on its green attributes. It must show some real economic advantages, otherwise we're back to square one and petrodiesel will prevail.

Dr. Luc C. Duchesne is president and CEO of Forest BioProducts Inc., a Sault Ste. Marie company focused on the development of business opportunities in this field. He holds a PhD in Botany from the University of Guelph and specializes in molecular biology, molecular genetics and molecular engineering.
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Author:Duchesne, Luc C.
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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