The high price of gasoline is starting to make alternative fuels look better. Biodiesel, a simple derivative of vegetable oil, ethanol and lye that can be brewed in a backyard still, was written off for decades while oil dribbled out of the ground at costs of $1.80 a barrel. On Sept. 9, however, the same barrel of light crude stood at $64.08—a short-term drop of 41 cents from the previous day.
"The affordability of biodiesel depends heavily on what kind of oil base you use," says biological engineer Sandun Fernando at Mississippi State University's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. "About 60 percent of the price of a gallon of biodiesel goes to the price of raw materials."
Diesel has other advantages. The first diesel engine ran on peanut oil. Today's engines can get you 50 miles per gallon on the highway. The lighter you get, the better your mileage. Cranfield University and California-based Hayes Diversified Technologies (HDT) has created the world's first production diesel military motorbike, which averages more than 110 miles per gallon. From a military standpoint, diesel isn't as quick to explode as gasoline and no Marine wants to enter a firefight with five gallons of boom juice under his crotch. The public, on the other hand, is screaming for it for economic reasons, and their calls for fuel efficiency are getting louder.
Biodiesel, for this reason, is gearing up to make a very big stand, according to industry professionals.
Biodiesel, unlike its fossil fuel counterpart, contains no sulfates and produces no bad smell or foul deposits. Its lubrication value is actually higher than that of petroleum diesel fuel and will essentially dump whatever pollution deposits you have in your engine into your filters—which will then likely need to be changed after the first couple of fill-ups.
"Any diesel engine made after 1994 can run biodiesel without any modifications or ill effects," says Bruce Blackwell, of Jackson's own Earth Biofuels Inc., which can produce a tanker of biodiesel a day. "It's been shown to be very helpful in reducing particulate matter which contributes to respiratory problems in children. Buses running on it have less negative health effects on students."
Blackwell says, however, that one of the biggest problems in putting together the magic brew is competing with hungry mouths for the same oil. Biodiesel comes from vegetable oil. Indeed, the processing adds no toxicity to the fuel and it can even be ingested without ill effects—aside from the frighteningly quick flushing of the intestinal tract common with swallowing vegetable oil.
"Soybean oil costs us north of $2.20 a gallon, which we have to process and make a return and profit on, but if we can find a cheaper source that doesn't have a food use, then that could end up coming in less than a dollar," Blackwell says.
GreenFuel Technologies Corporation in Cambridge, Mass., says they might have an answer for this.
Soybeans, and the European biodiesel crop, rapeseed, require considerable more expense to grow than it currently costs to pull a gallon of oil up out of the ground, even in these days of skyrocketing worldwide demand. Considerable fuel has to go into crop production as well. Gas is needed for heavy machinery; petroleum is needed for fertilizer, and so on. Some estimates declare that the return on a gallon of biodiesel is about three times what is required to produce it, despite its relatively cheap processing stage. One gallon of gas, comparatively, packs the energy returned on energy invested of about 30. If the biodiesel industry it to truly take off, the vegetable oil source will have to be as common as pond scum—and that's exactly where GreenFuel Founder and CTO Isaac Berzin is looking for it.
"(We're) creating feedstock that will make biodiesel comparable to petrodiesel costs," Berzin says. "Rapeseed and soy bean production is limited because both these crops need fertile land and fresh water in order to grow. …This limits soy's marketable value. GreenFuel's algae, on the other hand, can be grown in desert land using low quality, brackish, aquifer, or ocean water, so the company is not competing with agriculture and can have an endless supply of high quality feedstock."
That's right: algae—the scourge of pool owners throughout the South—is being harvested for its vegetable oil. Jenny Laden, vice president of 360 Public Relations LLC of Boston, which represents GreenFuel, says the company will not release proprietary information, such as the name of the algae species or any of the harvesting techniques. She assures, however, that the microbe has not been tampered with and should pose no hazard to the natural environment if released back into it.
Growing and harvesting veggie oil probably can't come much easier than scooping it out of carbon-suffused pond muck, and Blackwell says he's very hopeful.
"Vegetable oil from this source could potentially be at 50 cents a gallon," says Blackwell. "At 50 cents, we would cheaper than petroleum diesel. We'd see fuel costs probably less than $1.50."
That's a price commuter Gladys Overton says she doesn't think she'll ever see again. She says: "I just can't see fuel being that cheap anymore. I know it's not gas, but if diesel was $1.50 at the gas pump, you'd see a woman driving herself a diesel truck, car or something as soon as my credit was approved and that ain't no joke."