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Biodiesel: An Alternative Fuel Available Now!

Reducing the use of petroleum fuels in our vehicles, boats, and homes saves energy and reduces the environmental problems associated with its use. One alternative fuel option available is biodiesel-it's clean, green and readily available in the Puget Sound area!

What is Biodiesel?

Biodiesel is a diesel-like fuel derived from vegetable oil or other renewable resources. It can be made from soy or canola oil, waste cooking oil, and even animal fats. Biodiesel is made by combining the vegetable oil with alcohol [usually methanol but occasionally ethanol] in the presence of a catalyst through a process called transeterification.

Biodiesel derived from waste cooking oil is arguably the greenest liquid fuel available because the primary ingredient is a post-consumer waste product. Most biodiesel today, however, is "virgin biodiesel" produced domestically from soy or canola crops. Both recycled and virgin biodiesel are being produced to meet ASTM standard D 6751, approved in December 2001. This new standard, in the works since 1994 by the ASTM Biodiesel Standards Task force, for the first time provides a consistent biodiesel standard. Manufacturers can now design equipment with biodiesel in mind!

Some biodiesel today is mixed with petroleum diesel. The most common mixture is B20, a mixture of 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel. B100, or 100% biodiesel [sometimes called "neat biodiesel"] is being used very successfully by some but is not as widely recommended, due to concerns about cold weather performance, equipment compatibility, and cost.

Benefits of Biodiesel

Environmental Benefits

In 2000, biodiesel became the only alternative fuel in the country to have successfully completed the EPA-required Tier I and Tier II health effects testing under the Clean Air Act. These independent tests conclusively demonstrate biodiesels' significant reduction of virtually all regulated emissions, and showed biodiesel does not pose a threat to human health.

Biodiesel contains no sulfur or aromatics, and use of biodiesel in a conventional diesel engine results in substantial reduction of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. A US Department of Energy study showed that the production and use of biodiesel, compared to petroleum diesel, resulted in a 78.5% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, biodiesel has a positive energy balance. For every unit of energy needed to produce a gallon of biodiesel, 3.24 units of energy are gained.

Energy Security Benefits

With agricultural commodity prices approaching record lows, and petroleum prices approaching record highs, it is clear that more can be done to utilize domestic surpluses of vegetable oils while enhancing our energy security. Because biodiesel can be manufactured using existing industrial production capacity, and used with conventional equipment, it provides substantial opportunity for immediately addressing our energy security issues.

Economic Benefits

Increased utilization of renewable bio-fuels results in significant micro-economic benefits to both the urban and rural sectors, and the balance of trade. A study completed in 2001, by the US Department of Agriculture, found that an average annual increase of the equivalent of 200 million gallons of soy-based biodiesel demand would boost total crop cash receipts by $5.2 billion cumulatively by 2010, resulting in an average net farm income increase by $300 million per year. The price for a bushel of soybeans would increase by an average of $0.17 annually during the 10 year period.

Quality Benefits

Biodiesel is registered as a fuel and fuel additive with the EPA and meets clean diesel standards established by the California Air Resource Board [CARB]. B100 [100% Biodiesel] has been designated as an alternative fuel by the US Department of Energy and the US Department of Transportation.

The National Biodiesel Board has formed the National Biodiesel Accreditation Commission [NBAC] to audit fuel producers and marketers in order to enforce fuel quality standards in the US. NBAC issues a "certified biodiesel marketer" seal of approval for biodiesel marketers that have met all requirements of fuel accreditation audits. These seals of approval will provide added assurance to customers, as well as engine manufacturer's, that the biodiesel marketed by these company's meets the ASTM standards for biodiesel and that the fuel supplier will stand behind its products.(2)

In addition to being a domestically produced, renewable alternative fuel for diesel engines, biodiesel has positive performance attributes, such as cetane, high fuel lubricity, and high oxygen content, which may make it a preferred blending stock with future ultra clean diesel.


Where can I purchase biodiesel in the Puget Sound area?

Biodiesel is available nationwide. It can be purchased directly from biodiesel producers and marketers, petroleum distributors, or at a handful of public pumps throughout the nation. Locally many convenient options do exist. When planning a trip refer to to determine fueling locations along your route.

Dr. Dan's Alternative Fuel Werks 912 N.W. 50th Street, Seattle, WA (206) 783-5728; public access by arrangement only

Chevron 1607 145th Pl. SE, Bellevue, WA 98007 (425) 641-1531; 5am-11pm - sells B-100

Elliot Bay Fuel Dock 2601 W. Marina Pl Ste K, Seattle, WA 98199; (206) 282-8424; Summer 8a-8p; Winter 8am-5pm

West Bay Marine Services 210 West Bay Dr. NW, Olympia, WA 98502 (360) 943-2080; B100 only as an "additive"; M-Sat 8:30am-5:00pm

Does biodiesel cost more then regular diesel?

Commercially available biodiesel is more expensive then petroleum diesel or #2 heating oil. However, since diesel vehicles are 30%-35% more fuel efficient then gasoline vehicles, the net cost may be the same or less than that of a conventional vehicle.

Can biodiesel clog fuel filters when first switching from petro to biodiesel?

Biodiesel can be operated in any diesel engine with little or no modification to the engine or the fuel system. Pure biodiesel [B100] has a solvent effect, which may release deposits accumulated on tank walls and pipes from pervious diesel fuel use. With high blends of biodiesel, the release of deposits may clog filters initially and precautions should be taken to replace fuel filters until the petroleum build-up is eliminated.

Does biodiesel gel in low-freezing temperatures?

Biodiesel will gel in very cold temperatures, just as common #2 diesel does. Although pure biodiesel has a higher cloud point than #2 diesel fuel, typical blends of 20% biodiesel are managed with the same fuel management techniques as #2 diesel. Blends of 5% biodiesel or less have virtually no impact on cold flow.

Case Studies: Biodiesel Applications

Passenger vehicles

As an individual consumer, our transportation choices make the single biggest impact on the environment. Bicycling, taking the bus, and carpooling are great choices, but sometimes we need to drive a car. One of the simplest choices that can be made is to buy a diesel-powered automobile and burn biodiesel. By doing this, we can greatly lower the impact that our transportation makes on the environment- and still drive a fun car!

While Volkswagen is the only manufacturer currently selling new diesel passenger cars in the US, there are several choices if you buy used- including Peugot, Volvo, and Mercedes-Benz. As you may have noticed, these are all European cars. In Europe approximately 40 percent of passenger vehicles are diesel, thus the choices are more numerous. If you drive a pick-up truck, there are several American manufacturers that sell diesel-powered trucks. Here in Seattle, there are over one hundred individuals who are running their cars on biodiesel [including the authors of this article!]

Home/Building Heating

It is also possible to use biodiesel as a home-heating fuel. If your furnace is an oil-burning furnace, then you could be using any biodiesel blend- from B5 to B100. There are currently several customers of Dr. Dan's Alternative Fuelwerks, in Seattle [see Resources], who have biodiesel delivered for home use.

Fleet [Buses, etc]

Biodiesel use by municipal fleets has the greatest potential to improve air quality in the Puget Sound region, as most fleet vehicles run on diesel. These include most buses (both city and school), garbage trucks, and delivery trucks. In some areas of the US, the US Postal Service has begun using biodiesel in its vehicles. Just imagine if UPS and Fed-Ex trucks all ran on biodiesel!

Two local examples of fleet biodiesel use(3):

Olympia Transit Fleet

The public transportation agency in Thurston County, Intercity Transit, has begun using biodiesel in its fleet of 67 buses. Intercity Transit tested use of biodiesel on several of its buses in 2002 and found no operational difficulties. In fact, because biodiesel acts as a fuel lubricant, the agency's Maintenance Director speculates that it may extend the life of bus engine components. Beyond the environmental benefits of biodiesel, Intercity Transit was attracted to using this fuel type as it can be used in any conventional diesel engine without modification and stored safely anywhere that petroleum diesel fuel is stored.

Particulate levels, regulated under the federal Clean Air Act, are high in the Puget Sound region. Lacey Mayor and Intercity Transit Authority Vice Chair, Graeme Sackrison states, "Intercity Transit's voluntary shift to biodiesel use is being done to address the new federal emphasis on reducing particulate levels in our area. In the long run, this effort will benefit everyone."

Tacoma Garbage Fleet

As part of an ongoing commitment to environmental protection, Tacoma started using a blend of diesel fuel and biodiesel in its 85-truck garbage fleet in mid-November of 2001. Tacoma is the first city in the Pacific Northwest to commit an entire fleet to biodiesel use. "The City of Tacoma is an environmental leader in our area," said Linda Graham of the Puget Sound Clean Cities Coalition. "We're hoping that the City of Tacoma's commitment to using biodiesel will help spark other communities' interest in the earth-friendly fuel and help expand the biodiesel market to private fleets as well." "We've explored alternative fuels for quite some time, but most of the options cost too much to implement," said Steve Hennessey, Fleet manager. "Using biodiesel means we can do the environmentally-right thing without spending a lot of money." In addition, the alternative fuel has not impacted the performance of the trucks and maintenance crews have not run into any mechanical problems because of its use. "The City is looking into increasing the number of trucks that use biodiesel," Hennessey said. "The cost is minimally higher, but it's well worth it considering the benefits to the environment."


Biodiesel is a perfect replacement for petroleum diesel fuel in marine applications. Marine applications can be passenger boats, but also includes ferries and ocean-going ships. Some tour operators in environmentally sensitive areas, such as Hawaii, have begun using biodiesel to protect the waters that their livelihood is derived from. Not only does it keep the marine environment cleaner, but it will help make boating more enjoyable by reducing the black smoke and foul smell associated with petroleum diesel exhaust. Because Biodiesel is oxygenated, it promotes cleaner combustion. As a result, Biodiesel exhaust fumes are friendlier to operators, crews, and passengers.

For more information go to


There is a wealth of information about biodiesel available-some great places to start are:

National Biodiesel Board PO Box 104898 Jefferson City, MO 65110 800-841-5849, 573-635-3893

US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Transportation and Air Quality

US Department of Energy National Biofuels Program

Dr. Dan's Alternative Fuel Werks 912 N.W. 50th Street, Seattle, WA (206) 783-5728 for information about Volkswagen diesels.

From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank: The Complete Guide to Using Vegetable Oil as Alternative Fuel by Joshua Tickell, published by Tickell Energy Consultants, Covington, LA

Alex Wilson, Biodiesel: A Cleaner, Greener Fuel for the 21st Century, Environmental Building News, Volume 12, Number 1, January 2003 (2) National Biodiesel Board Resources-Fuel Fact Sheets (3) Puget Sound Clean Cities Coalition

Notes from Editor: Different forms of alternative fuels have been under development for years. And they involve tradeoffs in the different forms of emissions (Hydrocarbon, Carbon Monoxide, Particulates, and NOx), costs (fuel, equipment, maintenance, distribution), as well as many other factors like energy content and range. Lots of reference materials and scientific reports are available at your local library or on the internet. 

Photo: Biodiesel Plant by United Soybean Board


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