Construction Races Toward Using Biofuels

By Larry Stewart, Executive Editor | September 28, 2010

The first diesel Grand Prix winner is in this Audi, which has taken LeMans two years running, fueled by Shell GTL — synthetic diesel made from gaseous feed stock. Fed with plant biomass, the process could deliver high-performance diesel and satisfy political, environmental and economic renewable-fuel imperatives.

Volvo's designers chose hybrid power for the Centaur concept hauler which, when powered with a downsized engine and fueled with high-cetane synthetic diesel, seems certain to slash emissions to near zero and produce significantly improved performance.

The Energy Security Act authorizes $700 million of federal support each year until at least 2014 to develop the U.S. biofuels industry. Source: Renewable Fuels Assn.

The National Biodiesel Board is accrediting producers and marketers of biodiesel with a program based on ASTM's D6751 standard for biodiesel and systems quality.

Fifteen or 20 states with nonattainment counties that do not attain EPA particulate standards will very likely adopt California's rules aimed at upgrading existing off-road diesel engines to like-new emissions levels.

Witness the perfect storm from which alternate fuels will emerge as viable energy sources: A barrel of OPEC crude oil selling for more than $130 ushers pump prices of regular gasoline above $4.00 per gallon and on-highway diesel up to $5.00. War and saber rattling in the Middle East inflate domestic energy production to national-security status. Heavily populated regions grapple with air quality so poor that it threatens the immune systems of infants and the aged. The developed world ramps up its fight against global climate change by curbing carbon emissions.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that President Bush signed into law in December 2007 includes the Renewable Fuels Standard, which raises the U.S. biofuels production target to 36 billion gallons by 2022 in a progression that starts at 9 billion gallons this year (about 5.3 percent of total annual gasoline and diesel consumption). Europeans are driving to meet an EU directive to replace 10 percent of the Union's fossil energy by 2020.

As 174 world governments that ratified the Kyoto Protocol work to cap greenhouse-gas emissions, world demand specifically for biofuels rises. Today's search for carbon-dioxide-neutral fuels — fuels that release no net CO2 to the environment — leads toward biofuels because plant feedstocks remove as much or more CO2 from the environment than burning the fuels releases.

Biofuels address energy-independence and air-quality issues most clearly. In fact, combinations of biofuels and aftertreatment devices may be able to save some of the Tier 0 and Tier 1 diesels that otherwise would have to be replaced in order to comply with California's new off-road in-use diesel rules. But biofuels may not deliver an obvious greenhouse-gas or fuel-cost victory.

The debate over whether or not biofuels create more greenhouse gas and deepen this world's shameful inability to feed starving underprivileged people is a complex one. Both sides quote and attempt to discredit various studies of resources consumed making fuels and CO2 production, deforestation and economic stimulus, food-price inflation and personal-income growth in Asia.

Politics notwithstanding, the amount of money already invested — more than 60 new ethanol plants currently under construction — and tax dollars promised —Congress authorized $700 million of federal support each year until at least 2014 to develop our biofuels industry — suggests that biofuels are coming to a pump near you. The good news is that gasoline and diesel engines have little to fear.

Biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol enjoy particular advantages in a world amending fossil-based energy systems. Biofuels can be delivered to market without creation of completely new distribution systems. Existing gasoline and diesel engines require no real modification to run on ethanol blends or biodiesel.

The Energy Security Act sets a specific target of 1 billion gallons of biodiesel produced by 2012. A diesel engine's efficiency advantage easily outweighs fuel-efficiency losses that gasoline-powered cars might experience running on lighter ethanol fuels. Automakers know that, and there are more than 20 models of diesel-fueled cars and light trucks planned for introduction here by the 2010 model year; six models by 2009. Increasing demand for diesel will encourage broader distribution of low-emission heavy-duty fuels.

The construction industry will be drawn to diesel-fuel alternatives at the crossroads of energy independence and air-quality regulation. Some firms are already using diesel-fuel surrogates — attracted by economics, compelled by regulation, or both. The California Air Resources Board's (CARB's) emissions rule for in-use, off-road heavy-duty diesel vehicles sets the stage for putting some veggies in heavy iron's all-fossil diet.

1 | 2 | 3  NEXT PAGE