The Buzz on Biodiesel

By Don Miksch | September 28, 2010

Biodiesel has created quite a buzz among both consumers and commercial users alike. The word, which was unrecognizable just 10 years ago, is now a household term with a bulging industry behind it. Equipment manufacturers are releasing news of biodiesel-ready machines and alternative fuel producers are popping up across the nation. With all the hype, you'd probably like some information to decide for yourself if biodiesel really warrants the attention it's getting.

What exactly is biodiesel?

Biodiesel is a clean-burning alternative fuel usable in construction equipment, cars, buses, trucks, boats and generators — pretty much anywhere you'd find diesel at work. It provides the same horsepower and torque as petroleum-based diesel fuel and offers fuel consumption equal to that of regular diesel.

Although soybean oil is one of the common sources for biodiesel, the two are definitely not synonymous. The fact of the matter is, biodiesel is derived from any number of sources, and some mixtures don't include even an ounce of soybean oil.

Some of the other common ingredients found in biodiesel include oils, such as vegetable, canola, and cotton (even fryer oil sourced from fast-food restaurants) and animal tallow.

Often you will see biodiesel used as a part of a blend in construction equipment. This type of fuel is given a moniker such as B5 or B20. In the case of B20, the fuel being described is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum-based diesel.

Because your owners manual may be out of date with regards to the specific blends of biodiesel recommended, contact the manufacturer directly to get an update.

How can biodiesel benefit me?

The first benefit is the money it may save you. With diesel prices inching closer to the $5 a gallon rate every day, lower fuel costs are music to equipment owners' ears. Depending on the season, your state and the current cost of fuel, you could see valuable changes in the amount of money you're pouring into your equipment.

Where you'll see the biggest cost benefit of biodiesel is in your long-term maintenance program, as biodiesel often creates longer engine life overall. That said, you should be prepared for an initial increase in the number of necessary fuel filter changes. That's because the lubricity of biodiesel gives it a solvent quality, cleaning out your fuel system. After a few fill-ups, you'll begin to see the intervals between changes lengthen.

Among the benefits you'll see from switching out traditional diesel fuel for biodiesel in your machines are lower emissions and a reduction in engine noise. A higher Cetane number means biodiesel burns cleaner. On many jobs — particularly those in enclosed areas — reducing emissions isn't only the "green" thing to do; it's the right thing to do for your employees and customers.

To give you an idea of the significance with which emissions are reduced on biodiesel-burning engines, take a peek at these stats: With a B20 blend, there is a 20 percent reduction in unburned hydrocarbon, 12 percent reduction in carbon monoxide and 12 percent reduction in particulate matter. If you use 100-percent biodiesel, those numbers jump to 67 percent, 48 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

Are there any disadvantages to address?

There are a few biodiesel drawbacks, the largest being its availability. The availability currently varies based on which region of the country you are operating in.

Because of the lower energy content of biodiesel, construction equipment will receive less power. However, since the difference is so small, no operator would ever be able to detect a difference.

In rare cases, there may be leaks associated with biodiesel. But most seals used in contemporary injection systems are compatible with biodiesel.

For equipment owners who work in cold climates, biodiesel can cause a greater number of engine-start problems as compared to petroleum-based diesel. That's because the fuel crystallizes at a much lower temperature. However, the right mixture of ingredients can alleviate this trouble.

How can I find it?

Finding a distributor is as easy as jumping online. Visit and click on the Buying Biodiesel button. A map of the U.S. pops up and guides you through locating your nearest provider.

The most important thing to watch for is that the biodiesel you purchase is approved by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). The ASTM is composed of fuel producers, engine equipment manufacturers and others whose job is to set standards for all fuels, including biodiesel, used in U.S. engines. At press time, an ASTM subcommittee had recommended to allow B5 blend biodiesel to fall under the Regular Diesel Fuel Specification, meaning that the ASTM may soon view B5 no differently than regular petroleum-based diesel.

What about my engine?

If your equipment can burn diesel, it can burn biodiesel — with no modifications whatsoever. To be certain, check with your engine manufacturer.

The best thing to do is educate yourself on the issues and form your own opinion. Talk to fellow construction equipment owners and find out how the performance of their biodiesel-powered machines compares. Give your equipment OEM a call and find out what they recommend, and then follow up with your own mechanic to get the benefit of his experience.

After that, give it a shot. Find a producer who will work with you to get the best blend for your equipment, environment and applications. The benefits will make the trial and error worth it. Prepare for lower fuel and maintenance costs and higher customer and employee satisfaction.

Author Information
Don Miksch is vice president and co-founder of Riksch BioFuels, a biodiesel producer based in Southeast Iowa.