Big Vegetable Oil Strikes Again
June 11, 2006 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Under attack for not following environmental standards. Should people be allowed create potential pollution just to save a few bucks on gas? It's not like burning biodiesel in your car doesn't release smog or greenhouse gasses, and if there are all sorts of other impurities caused by cooking that might get cleaned up at larger processors rather then being burned in cars.

Biodiesel might save you money, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t actually do anything to help protect the environment. (Other then having less sulfur then regular diesel, from what I understand. Does it even cleaner then regular gasoline, or ethanol?)
posted by delmoi at 10:52 AM on June 11, 2006

It looks like they're going to have to make their own. "More fries kids?"
posted by blue_beetle at 11:01 AM on June 11, 2006

but as far as I can tell it doesn’t actually do anything to help protect the environment.

Most pollutant levels are significantly lower than petrodiesel. NOx levels are somewhat lower. However, if you are making your biodiesel from surface-grown crops (or, better, algae) then you are taking chemicals from the surface of the earth, turning them into fuel, and then re-releasing them when you burn them. Compare this with petroleum products, where the released chemicals come from the earth's crust. The net effect of biodiesel is generally zero.

If your feedstock depends heavily on petroleum, or your yellow grease has significant synthetic impurities in it, then you may be polluting more significantly.

Either way, Biodiesel production should probably be licensed and regulated. Mixing large quantities of chemicals at home isn't all that wise.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:05 AM on June 11, 2006

delmoi, that's the sort of thing you can easily research on your own, I don't know that we need to rehash it here yet again. Wikipedia has a good high-level summary, and plenty of links to follow for indepth detail.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:08 AM on June 11, 2006

Hmm, according to the wikipedia article, it actually produces more Nitrogen Oxides, which is one of the main "Dirty" pollutants, which cause ozone, smog, and acid rain, compared to "Greenhouse" pollutants.

b1tr0t, while all of the elements might be re-used, not all of the compounds are, burning of biodesel converts N2 in the air into NOxs, which cause pollution. The article mentions catalytic converters, but those aren't perfect, as far as I know.

And I think we can assume that those environmental regulations there are there for a reason other then making the environment worse, what reason would there be for ignoring them, other then to save money on gas?

The point is, if everyone home-brewed their own diesel fuel with no environmental worries at all it could be much worse for the environment overall.

Now ethanol, on the other hand supposedly burns even cleaner then gasoline (which burns cleaner then diesel)

Isn't nitrogen oxide primarily caused by higher burning temprature?
posted by delmoi at 11:27 AM on June 11, 2006

It doesn't seem to be under attack. It seems to be under very lively discussion. Honestly, nearly everyone quoted in that article and the situations described seem to be approaching differing points of view with consideration and tact. There seems to be a lot of talking and valid concerns coming from several directions. What's the problem?
posted by Captaintripps at 11:50 AM on June 11, 2006

It seems like the capacity for bio-diesel people in a given area is relatively low, since they are dependent on restaurants that fry things. Is this a problem in more granola parts of the country?
posted by smackfu at 11:53 AM on June 11, 2006

Fear not, flag-draped Republicans will soon start The War On Lard—you know, kick down a few doors, and haul evil bio-sinners off to gulags.

ExxonMobil will likely demand such action in the name of obscene profits. America can't have backyard competition hampering God-given corporate freedom.

Congress will quickly give big oil massive tax cuts, and thus sending a strong message to potential grease terrorists. If not, people might start growing and harvesting pot for its precious oils.

Or was that Switchgrass?
posted by BillyElmore at 12:03 PM on June 11, 2006

Yes, biodiesel generally produces more NOx than even petroleum diesel. Both biodiesel and petroleum diesel produce significantly lower amounts of CO2 than a Gasoline or Ethanol of comparable power.

My understanding of the situation is this:
1. Diesel combustion, whether bio or petro, produces NOx.
2. Catalytic convertor type devices could remove/reduce NOx and other pollutants from diesel emissions.
3. Catalytic convertor type devices are not currently equipped to U.S. diesel vehicles because U.S petroleum diesel standards historically permitted very high sulfur content...up to 500ppm I think. The petroleum/trucking industry has always lobbied against lower sulfur limits because of increased costs in refining. Catalytic convertor type devices will not function properly with high-sulfur fuel, similar to the situation of lead in gasoline prohibiting catalytic convertor function pre-1975.
4. Biodiesel has essentially no sulfur to begin with so it is already compatible with catalytic convertor type devices.
5. The U.S has finally implemented stronger limits on sulfur content (mandatory everywhere sometime in 2007 I think) of 15ppm and modern diesel emission filtering devices will be introduced, including ones that can meet California's most restrictive regulations. It took them more than 30 years since addressing lead in gasoline but I suppose better late than never.

Also of interest are government figures on energy yields(Life cycle yield in liquid fuel Btus for each Btu of fossil fuel energy consumed) for petro and bio fuels:
Gasoline = .805 ( -19.5% )
Diesel = .843 ( -15.7% )
Ethanol = 1.34 (+34%)
Biodiesel = 3.20 (+220%)

Biodiesel is part of the solution but yeah, homebrewers need to behave responsibly. Personally, I've seen a lot of them behave very irresponsibly with methanol.
posted by well_balanced at 12:25 PM on June 11, 2006

One of the articles above says:
The National Biodiesel Board, an industry group, reports that biodiesel sales have increased from 500,000 gallons in 1999 to 75 million gallons in 2005. Board spokeswoman Amber Thurlo-Pearson said the industry is on track to sell 150 million gallons this year.
Just to add some numbers, for scale purposes, here's the consumption of petroleum distillates by type since 1949 in the US.

Gasoline consumption in 2004 was 9,063,000 barrels per day. A barrel is 55 gallons, and assuming 365.24 days per year, that means 182 trillion gallons. (Or about 650 gallons per American assuming 280 million of us.)

Assuming 2006 to be about the same as 2004, then 150 million gallons of biodiesel represents 0.08% of the "motor gasoline" used. (I think they're including diesel in that column.)

Delmoi says, Biodiesel might save you money, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t actually do anything to help protect the environment.

It sure as hell isn't going to make any difference to the environment when it's such an insignificant piece of the whole picture. Production of biodiesel would have to scale up by a factor of 100 (reaching 8% of usage) before it will make any significant difference at all. And quite frankly, I don't think that's possible. We just don't have that much arable land we can use for producing fuel.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:13 PM on June 11, 2006

Total petroleum usage in 2004 was 20,517,000 barrels per day, or 412 trillion gallons per year. 150 million gallons of biodiesel represents a whopping 0.036%, or one part in 2750.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:03 PM on June 11, 2006

My favourite factoid from the little-guy-versus-The-Man alternative fuel world is the fact that in the United Kingdom, home alternative fuelers are required to pay fuel excise on their product, even if they only intend to use it themselves and not sell it to others.

The excise applies to people running diesels on straight vegetable oil (SVO), too - not just to biodiesel.

So if your local chip shop gives you a barrel of used oil for free, and you pour it through a strainer to get rid of the fuel-filter-clogging crunchy bits, and then tip 30 litres of it into your old Mercedes' half-full-with-mineral-diesel fuel tank (which'll let you run the Merc pretty much as normal, without adding or changing anything under the bonnet), Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs will require you to send them fourteen pounds and thirteen pence for... well, just out of gratitude for them being so gosh-darned great, I guess.

Or they'll haul you off to court.

Realistically, individual alt-fuelers are pretty safe from this, but hippy trippy neighbourhood collectives have been hit up for thousands of pounds in back taxes, which of course instantly obliterates them.
posted by dansdata at 4:31 PM on June 11, 2006

damn straight, billyelmore ... furthermore, it's my lead, it's my aluminum tubing, my water, my backyard and my uranium

i'm gonna build me my own reactor! ... just as soon as i go to walmart for the duct tape

seriously, are you sure you'd like to live next door to amateurs making biodiesel? ... i wouldn't
posted by pyramid termite at 4:40 PM on June 11, 2006

Most pollutant levels are significantly lower than petrodiesel. NOx levels are somewhat lower.

This isn't clear at all. There has been some PM10 reduction observed in a single study. It's being repeated right now. The NOX reduction figures I've seen aren't significant.

But more than this, NO ONE knows what happens when you spill this stuff. What are the health effects of these things? Are biodiesels water-soluble (it's fatty acid esters and other derivatives, not hydrocarbons)? What are the 1-octanol/water Kows (a standard test to estimate fish narcosis)? What are the LD/LC50s? Are they carcinogens? Do they form DNA adducts? All of the different feedstocks (animal waste, fry oils, soy, canola, to name only some) and different derivitizations produce a different result. These guys need to prove that they're not polluting the watershed every time the brew a batch. Where are their residues going? Down the stormsewer?

It takes money to answer these questions (we're doing about 5 fuels/year for about $250k CAD/yr), but can homebrewers? You can run a car on benzene too, but you definitely wouldn't want your neighbour doing it. Just because the source is "natural", there's no guarantee that the derivatized fuel isn't toxic. Vegetable oil kills seabirds just as readily as petroleum crude.
posted by bonehead at 5:24 PM on June 11, 2006

"NO ONE knows what happens when you spill this stuff."

Perhaps I'm misinterpreting your meaning but googling '"biodiesel toxicity" immediately returned references to references to at least 4 formal studies that I could see:

1. Aquatic Biodegradability - U of I
2. Aquatic Toxicity with Daphnia magna and
Rainbow Trout - CH2M Hill
3. Static and Flow through Aquatic toxicity
tests - U of I
4. Acute Oral Toxicity and Acute Dermal
Toxicity - WIL Research Laboratory

This summarizes: Tests conducted by Wil Research Laboratories, Inc. investigated the acute oral toxicity of pure biodiesel fuel as well as a 20% blend of biodiesel with No. 2 diesel (B20) in a single-dose study on rats. the LD50 of pure biodiesel, as well as B20, was found to be greater than 5000 mg/kg, although hair loss was noted on one sample in the B20 group. The acute dermal toxicity of neat biodiesel was evaluated in a single dose study involving rabbits. The LD50 of biodiesel was found to be greater than 2000 mg/kg and the 2000 mg/kg dose level was found to be a No Observable Effect Level (NOEL) for systemic toxicity.

Acute aquatic toxicity tests with Daphnia Magna have also been conducted. Table salt (NaCl), diesel and biodiesel were compared to each other. The LC50 count (the concentration where 50 percent of the Daphnia Magna have died and 50 percent were still alive) for table salt was 3.7 parts per million (ppm). Fifty percent of the Daphnia Magna were dead at 1.43 ppm for diesel fuel. The LC50 number varied for biodiesel from 23 ppm to 332 ppm.

I don't really know about toxicity of the byproducts...I'd bet a lot of homebrewers are probably disposing of them in a questionable manner but while certainly biodiesel is not a zero impact substance it has vastly less impact than petroleum diesel from everything I've read thus far.
posted by well_balanced at 6:43 PM on June 11, 2006

I was shocked at how easy it is to do Do it Youself alternative energy thanks to Morgan "Super Size Me" Spurlocks episode called "Off the Grid" which had a segment that among many other things, included a french fry grease powered car. (You have to run on regular gas till the engine gets hot enough and then flip the switch to grease power after a few minutes)

All this stuff is a sleeping giant. And Exxon Mobil needs to buy these guys out while their stock is only 50 cents ....
posted by celerystick at 9:04 PM on June 11, 2006

Sorry, no; it's a sleeping dwarf. There's no way this will scale up enough to represent a credible significant alternative to petroleum.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:24 PM on June 11, 2006

Steven: Solution then is to scale down the use of petroleum so that renewable replacements will meet the need. So simple to say, so difficult to make happen.

Setting the science aside, one thing I do know: In today's political climate, regulation is used by big players to make it harder for little guys to get in to the act. The current administration's bleatings about "free enterprise" are so much bullshit.
posted by Goofyy at 2:25 AM on June 12, 2006

Realistically, individual alt-fuelers are pretty safe from this, but hippy trippy neighbourhood collectives have been hit up for thousands of pounds in back taxes, which of course instantly obliterates them.

Well they should be a bit more careful with their spending. My colleague who runs his car on biodiesel suggests you can get a litre for 80p currently, which compares pretty well with the £1 it would cost for diesel at the pump.

it may also be of interest to note that the UK is set to introduce a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) which aims to drive demand for biofuels up to 5% of total fuel use. It was brought into law (in principle) in the 2003 Energy Act and may start by 2008.
posted by biffa at 4:00 AM on June 12, 2006

I had a little fact check and my colleague actually produces his own biodiesel at about 50p/litre, including tax. He reckons he could probably get that down a bit if he put the effort in too.
posted by biffa at 10:03 AM on June 12, 2006

Check out this Tiny Microreactor For Biodiesel Production.

It seems like great news and I hope it gets to market for regbular folks like me.

Summary quote from the article:

"The microreactor, being developed in association with the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), consists of a series of parallel channels, each smaller than a human hair, through which vegetable oil and alcohol are pumped simultaneously. At such a small scale the chemical reaction that converts the oil into biodiesel is almost instant.

Although the amount of biodiesel produced from a single microreactor is a trickle, the reactors can be connected and stacked in banks to dramatically increase production. "By stacking many of these microreactors in parallel, a device the size of a small suitcase could produce enough biodiesel to power several farms, or produce hundreds of thousands of gallons per year," Jovanovic said.

Using microreactors, biodiesel could be produced between 10 and 100 times faster than traditional methods, said Jovanovic, who is also developing a method for coating the microchannels with a non-toxic metallic catalyst. This would eliminate the need for the chemical catalyst, making the production process even more simple, a key to widespread use."
posted by chowder at 6:27 PM on June 12, 2006

Backyard production of fuel, pyramid termite, I agree should have regulation. I was thinking more of farmers or small businesses producing such energy, but again with regulation.

It does strike me as a way for small business people to get in the game, and provide competition so badly needed in big oil. imagine some local guy setting up an operation and station and selling to locals. ExxonMobil might be forced to consider lower prices.
posted by BillyElmore at 6:54 PM on June 12, 2006

Anyone here old enough to see the Disney version of "Babes in Toyland"? Ed Wynn played the Toymaker, apparently the source of the toys delivered by Santa Claus on Christmas. His assistant Tom Piper comes up with a brilliant invention which he says will solve the problem easily: a gun which fires a special gas cloud which will take normal furniture and shrink it to toy size.

He demonstrates it for the Toymaker, who is less than overwhelmed. "Where am I going to get all the regular sized furniture to shrink?", to which question Tom Piper has no answer, and tosses his new gun into the trash, where the villain finds it.

Backyard production of fuel runs up against the problem of feedstock. Irrespective of what kind of marvelously ingenious and miniaturized transformation equipment you can come up with, what is it that you're converting into fuel, and where are you getting it from?

ExxonMobil is uninterested in this and unimpressed with it because it will never be big enough to threaten ExxonMobil, because there will never be a big enough source of feedstock for conversion to be able to produce enough fuel this way to significantly offset ExxonMobil's product.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:37 PM on June 12, 2006

"Irrespective of what kind of marvelously ingenious and miniaturized transformation equipment you can come up with, what is it that you're converting into fuel, and where are you getting it from?"

I remember watching Babes in Toyland when I was a babe myself. I can't tell if you don't know that much about about biodiesel or you're just trying to kick up dust because you're bored.

It's possible for me personally to mix my own biodiesel using what's been called biodiesel feedstock (I see you used this word yourself...). Note that one of the items on this list includes waste vegetable oil.

There is a Thai restaurant down the street from my home who's delivery car runs exclusively off oil from it's own restaurant that they converted themselves. As an individual business owner, the Thai restaurant guy is saving possibly hundreds of dollars or more on fuel each year. It's possible to get the fuel materials and arguably they're more accessible than nice life-sized furniture. I find it hard to believe you aren't aware of these practices, which is why I wonder if I'm missing the point of your last comment.

Maybe with your question "what is it you're converting to fuel, and where are you getting it from?" you mean it can't be found at such a scale that it will worry ExxonMobile. As I look back through this thread I can see you're bent on convincing people that they can't change the petrol consumption of the nation by using or promoting bio-diesel. As someone interested in bio-diesel I don't really care whether it worries ExxonMobile. As an individual I wish to practice the use of bio-diesel for my personal benefit. Nothing wrong with this attitude in my opinion, after all people use regular gas everyday for their own benefit.

Some touring bands are using bio-diesel vehicles to get around and convert their own as they drive from town to town. Two that I know of are Hot Buttered Rum and Thamusemeant. If they or the Thai guy above has that miniature conversion device, it would be even easier for them to do what they're already doing with feedstock they can obviously obtain. The point, crunch all the numbers about barrels per year you want, people are still converting and consuming bio-diesel while having fun in the process.
posted by chowder at 6:28 PM on June 13, 2006

It's a novelty. But that's all it is. It's not going to change the world. That's my point.

If it makes people happy, I'm all for it. I'm not trying to say that no one should be doing this.

What I'm saying is that it's impossible for everyone to do this.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:38 PM on June 13, 2006

« Older TVU   |   What? No Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments