Book Review: Biodiesel: Growing A New Energy Economy, by Greg Pahl


Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes


May 12, 2005


Great Book on an Intrguing Topic


Below is my favourable take on Greg Pahl's "Biodiesel":

Diesel-powered vehicles and equipment are everywhere, and are likely to continue to exist for years, if not for generations to come. Buses, trains, trucks, generators, and a growing number of automobiles use diesel fuel. Diesel engines tend to be more fuel-efficient, and last longer, than their gasoline-powered counterparts. Diesel engines get better torque than do gasoline engines, and devote more of their energy to propulsion (what we want), and less to wasted heat (what we don't want). In summary, diesel engines have a lot going for them.

However, the challenge is that diesel, along with its cousin, gasoline, are fossil fuels, whose supplies are, by most reasonable estimates, finite and declining at rates greater than many of us feel comfortable to acknowledge. Diesel fuel, when burned by an inefficient engine, generates a lot of pollution, both real (e.g. particulate matter) and perceived (i.e. billowing clouds of smoke). Diesel has a bad reputation in some circles, and often this is deserved.

Enter biodiesel, a renewable alternative to traditional "petrodiesel". Developed over the past several decades from various plant and animal "feedstocks", biodiesel is a relatively clean-burning fuel that can either supplement or, in some cases, replace the non-renewable petrodiesel. For example, B20 biodiesel, which I use in my 2004 VW Golf, consists of 20% biodiesel and 80% traditional petrodiesel. Overall engine performance is as good as, if not better than, what would be experienced using pure petrodiesel. The greater lubricity of biodiesel prolongs the life of engines that use it; this attribute will grow in importance as diesel suppliers are encouraged or forced to reduce the sulphur content of the fuel... the lower the sulphur, the lower the lubricity.

Other big motivations for using biodiesel are that, as a locally-sourced form of energy, it reduces our reliance on oil from other countries; additionally, there is its tendency to emit fewer toxic substances than an equal volume of petrodiesel. Local farmers, supplying the soybeans or switchgrass that constitute the biodiesel feedstock to nearby refiners, stand to benefit financially. Even used vegetable frying oil from restaurants can be salvaged and, with minimal processing, converted to cleanly burning biodiesel.

Greg Pahl makes the technology of biodiesel production accessible to the layperson; those of us who struggled through high school chemistry can grasp the concepts that Pahl presents so clearly. In a nutshell, many plants that are the beneficiaries of photosynthesis, such as soybeans and canola, hold in their cells energy from the sun, in a similar way that oil in the tar sands holds energy from the sun in the form of plant and animal matter that lived millions of years ago, and has been compressed and preserved.

The future of biodiesel depends on a few factors: education of customers, and governments that offer subsidies to suppliers of "green" energy sources; a steady supply of biodiesel feedstocks, such as soybean oil, canola oil, used vegetable fryer oil, and even animal fat from meat renders; a corresponding steady price for such feedstocks, so that biodiesel production capacity planning can be done with lower risk; a relatively attractive price for biodiesel vis--vis petrodiesel prices; cooperation between the large and small biodiesel suppliers; and collaboration between biodiesel suppliers of all shapes and sizes with the traditional petrodiesel vertical infrastructure (from the extraction of raw crude oil, all the way to the retail pumps in your neighbourhood).

Unlike hydrogen technology, biodiesel is a relatively clean, renewable energy source that is in successful, widespread use today: entire school bus fleets in the US run on pure biodiesel, with positive performance results and, happily, lower engine maintenance costs. Politically, it is often a no-brainer for state and local governments to embrace biodiesel use, as it puts money in the pockets of local farmers, and the fuel can be used with no need to convert existing diesel-consuming equipment. However, the traditional petrodiesel industry may well balk at moves to support biodiesel proliferation, since this would dilute, figuratively and literally, the concentration of petrodiesel that its customers necessarily need to buy.

I highly recommend Pahl's book. It provides a balanced view of the benefits and challenges that face biodiesel producers and users. Having said this, Pahl is a cheerleader for biodiesel, and justifiably so. It's hard not to share his enthusiasm.