Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Winter 2013 > +/-


Re-use, Recycle, Re-fuel

-Don Scott is the director of sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board. Prior to joining the National Biodiesel Board, he was an environmental engineer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

The sustainability of personal transportation means balancing the social and economic benefits of car ownership with vehicles’ environmental, economic, and social impacts. To be truly sustainable, we must source our energy from the sun – and today biodiesel is the best way to capture solar energy for transportation. Biodiesel provides us a renewable, nontoxic, biodegradable replacement for diesel fuel that drastically reduces greenhouse gas emissions. So if you have to buy a car and you’re concerned about the environment, you should consider purchasing a vehicle that can run on biodiesel.

photo of a plant, beans apparentphoto David DeHetre

The internal combustion engine is king when it comes to moving people and things from place to place, and
liquid fuels are the most versatile way to store energy for mobile uses. Mother Nature agrees. Plants and animals use oils and fat to store energy. Biodiesel makes use of these fats and oils to provide renewable fuel that recycles carbon. These natural oils are available to us in many ways. We can recycle used cooking oil and animal fat from beef, swine, and poultry processing. We can collect waste grease from municipal waste streams and, perhaps in the future, grow crops like algae. The biodiesel industry is very diverse, using many different raw materials to produce renewable fuel. This diversity is increasing as the industry grows to displace ever-greater amounts of fossil petroleum.

About half of US biodiesel is currently produced using soybean oil. Soybeans are grown to produce protein for livestock feed. Since biodiesel doesn’t use protein, it is a co-product of soy cultivation. By using surplus oil, biodiesel reduces the cost of protein and helps ensure plentiful supplies of feed and food.

Plants take carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow. When we burn biodiesel, this biogenic carbon is returned to the atmosphere just as it is when plants eventually die and decay. When we use biodiesel instead of fossil fuel, we generate a significant carbon benefit, because we eliminate the need to extract and burn fossilized carbon stored permanently underground. In this way, we can harness energy in keeping with Earth’s natural equilibrium for carbon between plants and the atmosphere.

It’s unfortunate that Jim Motavalli relies on the research of Pimentel and Patzek to make his case. Their work has been thoroughly refuted by the Department of Energy and US Department of Agriculture labs charged with finding our energy solutions. One critique of their work found that the researchers failed to include in their calculations the energy inputs from the sun – which of course is the very basis of biofuels’ elegance.

If we add up all the energy used to cultivate a crop, transport raw materials to a biodiesel plant, and convert natural oils into a diesel substitute, approximately five-and-a-half times more energy is stored in liquid biodiesel than the energy invested in its production. This net energy gain has been growing steadily as technology matures. In 1998, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded this energy gain was 3.2 to 1. In 2009, The USDA proved that it had increased to 4.5 to 1. In 2011, the USDA and the University of Idaho reported that the benefit ratio is now 5.5 to 1. The leveraging of energy resources to produce biodiesel corresponds to a greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction in excess of 80 percent relative to petroleum.

US consumers can be assured that the biodiesel they purchase has positive environmental benefits. The US EPA enforces the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires biodiesel to reduce GHG emissions by at least 50 percent. The EPA also requires that biodiesel feedstocks only come from wastes and existing agricultural by-products. Federal law prohibits land conversion and importation of renewable fuel or feedstocks from countries where agricultural expansion is blamed for deforestation.

No single solution can replace our dependence on fossil fuel. We need a diversity of solutions. Biodiesel and electric vehicles are parallel options to move toward that diversity. Electric vehicles can be part of the solution, but unfortunately right now most American electricity is not renewable. Biodiesel is. It can be produced economically at a local scale, and it can be a significant part of our national energy portfolio. The US biodiesel industry has set a responsible goal to displace 5 percent of diesel fuel by 2015. We produced more than one billion gallons of advanced biofuel in 2011, and we are on track to produce four billion gallons annually by 2022.

We can expect continued improvement in diesel engine technology. Diesel engines, which can be 30 percent more efficient than gasoline engines, have experienced a revolution in technology, with emissions 90 percent cleaner than engines of a few decades ago. Diesels are now quieter and cleaner than ever while producing thrilling power and torque with unmatched range and reliability. Biodiesel vehicles are also perfectly suited for hybrid augmentation. Hino, one of the largest truck manufacturers worldwide, is introducing a biodiesel-electric hybrid truck. We are likely to see more biodiesel hybrids in the future.

small excerpt of a poll pageReader OpinionWhat do you think: Veggie oil or plug-in electric? Vote and be counted.

The most important market for biodiesel remains the heavy duty trucks, tractors, trains, and barges that power our economy. Liquid fuel will long be necessary for the production and distribution of food, as well as for construction, manufacturing, shipping, and emergency response. And let’s not forget buses. Public transportation can benefit greatly from biodiesel. Biodiesel powers city buses from San Francisco to Dallas to New York and many cities in between.

Biodiesel can power your personal ride, too. By harnessing the energy from the sun, you can enjoy the performance of proven technology with cutting edge, carbon-neutral fuel.

For an opposing view, read what Jim Motavalli has to say.


Email this article to a friend.

Write to the editor about this article.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10



I fully agree with M/s Don Scott & Ramsey. Bio-diesel & electrical vehicles are great innovations in the near term for maximum economic & environmental benifits. Unfortunately some vested interests in India are opposing diesel claiming falsely that it would produce higher GHGs!

By Dr Ashok Gupta on Tue, January 29, 2013 at 9:53 pm

I have a 2005 Mercedes E320 CDI and a 2004 Ford Excursion that I run on Biodiesel. I have a 2012 Ford Focus Electric. The electric is fantastic for around town. The truck and Mercedes are equally super for long trips. I am an engineer (Rocket Scientist) and I think both technologies are mutually inclusive. We have had diesel-electric trains since the 40’s. Diesel-electric cars and even more inportanantly diesel-electric trucks are a real win-win solution. Diesel’s 30% economy gain over gas as well as its “greeness” and electricities instant torque, high efficiency, regen braking and “greeness” makes this a real near-term goal. Let’s hope the auto companies see this. The only issue with biodiesel is the extreme shortage of the stuff. In Los Angeles, it is nearly impossible to find. Long term I think the answer is still less clear with hydrogen and fuel cells in the mix. Sure is a great time to be an engineer.

By Ramsey on Thu, January 03, 2013 at 12:08 am

Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Please enter the word you see in the image below:


Four issues for just
$10 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!