Oct 4, 2009

Biodiesel? Ethanol? Hemp Seed Oil? Oh My—a Primer on Alternative Fuels

Myth: You have to have a special converter or a special engine to run alternative fuels.

Truth: If you have a regular engine, you can run 15% ethanol (E-15) right now, with no conversion. If you want to use 85% ethanol (E-85), you would need to have your engine converted or own a car that is a Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV).

If you have a diesel (compression-ignition) engine, you can run biodiesel right now. That is, the biodiesel you can find sold in gas stations across the U.S., the fuel that has already been refined. (Biodiesel has had the glycerin removed and is therefore ready to pump.)

What's the difference between ethanol and biodiesel?

Ethanol is an alcohol rather than an oil, where the primary substance that comprises it is a grain, usually corn, sometimes wheat or barley. Ethanol can come from many sources, but in the U.S., right now, it's mostly corn.

Biodiesel is an oil-based fuel where the primary substance that comprises it is soybeans. Like ethanol, biodiesel can be made from other sources: recovered used cooking oil (which must be strained and processed to remove the glycerin), hemp seed oil (right on!), and other oils.

Both ethanol and biodiesel are made from renewable resources, help decrease dependence on foreign oil, and are, for the most part, environmentally sound (with some exceptions for corn-based ethanol).

What are the Pros and Cons of Ethanol?

The beef against ethanol is that growing corn is a horticulturally intensive process that requires plenty of chemical interventions. But, ethanol can be made from other grains as well. Also, a lot of controversy about ethanol stems from what is known as a low energy-use balance. In other words, it still takes a good bit of energy to produce the grains to be used in ethanol. With more research, this energy-use balance is expected to improve.

The great part about ethanol is that we can grow it ourselves and become independent of the Middle East and other politically tricky regions of the world. Also think positive farm income. The other great thing is that we can use it now in a standard vehicle, which most of us already own. Again, 15% ethanol (E-15) without conversion. 85% (E-85) with conversion is a rule of thumb. To learn if your car model is a Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV) that can accept E-85, check here.

Iowa is getting in gear to be our primary source of ethanol in this country. Canada is excited about ethanol too. I love the idea of growing our own fuel and thumbing our noses at the oil barons (Bye, bye, Bush. Bye bye, Cheney) whom I hope will soon go the way of their dinosaur brethren whose body oils have dominated the 20th century and are helping destroy the Earth they once populated. Ethanol made from corn may not be the perfect solution. But it seems like a worthy stop-gap measure and with more research, perhaps some better substance than corn can be used for ethanol. Don't give up on it yet!

What are the Pros and Cons of Biodiesel?

Biodiesel is righteous. You can use it now in a diesel engine without doing anything at all. It's currently made mostly from soybeans, which, as you know from fourth grade science class, are a blessing to our environment. Soybeans fix nitrogen in the soil. They actually leave the soil in better shape than before they were grown. Soybeans do not require much chemical intervention and they yield beautifully in terms of labor vs. return. Soybean-based biodiesel also has a great energy-use balance. Soybeans could save the world, I am convinced (I lived in Japan for five years and ate a lot of soybeans) in terms of both fuel and food.

"Biodiesel is simple to use, biodegradable, nontoxic, and essentially free of sulfur and aromatics." In other words, it's great on the environment and it isn't stinky. "It is less toxic than table salt and biodegrades as fast as sugar."

As to price, biodiesel usually costs a bit more than regular grade petroleum. The biodiesel pump near my house sells it for about $.25 more per gallon, which doesn't seem like a lot for a clean0burning fuel. If I had a diesel engine, I'd be pumping there right now. Can you imagine your tailpipe smelling like french fries? Yeah!

Now, you might have heard of someone filtering their own used veggie oil and using it in their diesel engine--but this is a no-no. Commercially available biodiesel is refined and treated to make it usable in a diesel engine.

The only con I can think of to using biodiesel is that most of us don't own diesel engine vehicles (hopefully that will change), and that using biodiesel will piss off the oil mega-industrial giants such as Exxon Mobile, which, by the way, made $39.5 BILLION U.S. in profit in 2006. (You read that right. Almost $40 Billion.) If you work for them, you might not like biodiesel. Other than that, I cannot think of why not to use biodiesel.

To find a biodiesel pump near you, see Biodiesel.org. There are three biodiesel fueling stations in Ventura county, and three in Santa Barbara county, for instance. If you favorite gas station doesn't have it yet, ask the manager to get biodiesel. They can have it replace a diesel fuel pump without any special retrofitting.

To learn more about biodiesel:

Biodiesel: The Basics

Biodiesel Community

Canada Renewable Fuels Association

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