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A huge part of biodiesel's appeal is that it can be made from any plant or animal fat, even Soylent Green. Procter & Gamble's baby-food division is a big supplier. Refiners use an alcohol to break fatty acids away from glycerin, resulting in a fuel that's slightly goopy, with the same viscosity and power density as petrodiesel but with greater lubricity. Biodiesel is also more biodegradable, and safer to handle and transport. And because diesel engines are inherently more efficient than gasoline engines, even an old warhorse like the 5000-pound Hemp Car gets 27 miles per gallon.
But when it comes to passenger cars, Americans are still wed to the gasoline-fired, internal combustion engine. Diesels do the heavy lifting, with trucks, buses, earthmovers, tractors, generators, and mining equipment usually powered by the cheaper fuel. That's why, when Washington seeks biofuels, the pols think first of ethanol.
One Hail Mary pass at alternative energy would be biogasolineas opposed to biodieselwhich could run most current cars. The late Nobel laureate chemist Melvin Calvin started the quest at the University of California. Now Purdue University researcher Bernard Tao has taken up the search, with hopes of genetically engineering a plant that could produce clean, efficient gas.
Still, Volkswagen is keeping a toe in the diesel market on a gamble that America might swing Germany's way, where about half the cars carry that kind of engine. If biodiesel hits the mainstream, it'll most likely be in the tanks of Volkswagens. No other major company is selling diesel passenger cars here. "We're fighting an uphill battle in the United States because diesel has a bad rap," complains company spokesperson Tony Fouladpour. Despite the Volkswagen's quiet, clean-burning engine, American consumers still imagine stinking, knocking old clunkers.
Though diesel sales are up sharply in the U.S., they account for just 10 percent of Volkswagen's market. The industry and its regulators set 2007 as the year diesels will run cleaner than today's natural-gas engines. By then, the fuel of choice may not be pumped from the earth, but grown. "The cars will perform perfectly fine on biodiesel," Fouladpour says. "And we would welcome that."
Another lead Germany has over America is in biodiesel distribution. There are 900 public filling stations vending biodiesel in Germany, which has an area smaller than California. The continental U.S. just started installing public biodiesel pumps in May. Olympian, the proprietor of a pump in San Francisco, is thrilled. "I am tickled to death with the results of this one," says company executive Tom Burke. "We had another alternative fuel before, E85 gasoline [85 percent ethanol] in a four-thousand-gallon tank that sat for five years. We decided to put biodiesel in that tank, and since May we've sold over 5000 gallons. We think the success has been phenomenal."
There are plans for biodiesel pumps in a dozen states before 2002.
For a traditional petroleum company like Olympian, the novel venture is an "easy in, easy out," Burke observes, because the pumps work the same as ones for standard diesel. The per-gallon price remains 50 cents higher, he adds, but once the gap closes, biodiesel "will be a very common fuel."
Homemade brews already seem hokey now that the government has biodiesel vehicles plying the highways of California, Minnesota, and Florida, as part of complying with a 1992 law mandating greener fleets. The Pentagon and National Parks Service have also taken biodiesel to heart. As demand grows, new sources beyond cooking grease will have to be found, but the answer isn't likely to be hemp.
"Hippy-dippy" projects don't use the full power value of fats and don't reward the processor enough to be financial viable, says Dr. K. Shaine Tyson, renewable-diesel project manager at the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. Her own idea is nearly as exotic though: the lowly mustard seed. Tyson says its oil would make inexpensive biodiesel, and the remains could pull a profit as organic pesticide instead of being pushed off as animal feed, as happens with soybeans once they've been mashed.
But don't look for miracles, she cautions. "We're never going to replace all diesel in America. We'd be lucky if we made a 10 percent dent," she predicts. As for passenger cars, biofuels won't even make the radar unless Americans radically change their auto buying habits.
Olympian's supplier, World Energy, is working overtime to promote biodiesel, but company president Gene Gebolys agrees with Tyson. He described biodiesel as "an existing intermediate-wedge technology unparalleled in its ability to have quick impact." But as he drove through California's behemoth Tehachapi Pass wind farm, he commented, "We don't expect it to be the end-all, be-all. Years ago everybody wanted to find the quick fix, a pill we could take to make fossil-fuel ills go away. Well, it's going to take a buffet of technologies."
That explains some of the resistance World Energy, based in Massachusetts, has gotten from Northeastern states, including New York. Environmentalists here have committed themselves to compressed natural gas and view biodiesel as a threat, he says. Even California, while pioneering public access to biodiesel limits the sale of diesel cars, a remnant of how diesel was perceived in decades past.