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US: Biodiesel Boom Well-Timed

Biodiesel fueling stations are sprouting like weeds across America, where production of the alternative fuel rose 66 percent in 2003. Experts say the rapid growth of the renewable fuel will stretch the country's tenuous petroleum supply while helping people breathe a little easier.

Damon Toal-Rossi of Iowa City, Iowa, jumped on the biodiesel bandwagon after a friend outlined the benefits of using a fuel made from soy or vegetable oil. The software programmer liked the idea of a cleaner-burning fuel that reduces dependence on foreign oil so much that he traded in his gasoline-powered pickup truck for a diesel-powered Volkswagen Golf.

After a few months of driving 10 miles to a biodiesel fueling station, Toal-Rossi went online to find a recipe and began making his own fuel. Because Toal-Rossi gets the primary ingredient -- used cooking oil -- from a nearby restaurant for free, he spends just 41 cents per gallon to make his 12-liter batches of biodiesel.

"I feel good about reducing my environmental impact, and besides, it's a great fuel for my car," said Toal-Rossi, noting that he now gets 44 miles per gallon, a big improvement over his 14-mpg pickup.

Biodiesel enthusiasts like Toal-Rossi may soon find their oil-alternative fuel easier to acquire. According to the National Biodiesel Board, the number of consumer biodiesel fueling stations rose nearly 50 percent last year to 200. So far this year, 25 new stations have opened, including 10 in Colorado and five in New Hampshire.

Ron Heck, president of the American Soybean Association, said biodiesel can be blended with regular diesel in any ratio, or can be used as a fuel by itself. "It has almost the same amount of (energy) as petroleum diesel," Heck said. Using biodiesel will clean an engine's fuel injectors and cut down on the number of required oil changes, according to Heck. "I buy it because it's better fuel."

The reintroduction of diesel vehicles into the U.S. market is expected to increase the demand for biodiesel, according to the National Biodiesel Board's Jenna Higgins. After abandoning the U.S. market for almost 20 years, Mercedes-Benz and DaimlerChrysler are delivering new diesel vehicles in 2004, and Volkswagen has expanded its lineup of diesel-engine vehicles.

Higgins said most diesel vehicles do not have to be modified to burn biodiesel, and auto manufacturers support fueling their vehicles with biodiesel, which burns cleaner than standard fuel.

Passenger vehicles, private vehicle fleets and farmers used 25 million gallons of biodiesel in 2003, up from 15 million gallons the previous year, and new federal Environmental Protection Agency emission rules could further increase demand, according to Higgins.

Starting in 2006, the EPA will require that diesel producers reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and remove up to 99 percent of the sulfur content in the fuel used by passenger cars and trucks. In May 2004, the EPA announced that these same rules would apply to diesel for off-road vehicles starting in 2007.

While the EPA estimates that cleaning up the diesel will prevent 4,300 premature deaths per year, removing the sulfur also reduces the fuel's lubricity. Diesel producers need to regain that slipperiness to prevent engine clogging, and biodiesel is a likely additive, according to Galen Suppes, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

"Biodiesel is cost-competitive" with the chemical alternatives, said Suppes, adding that a 2 percent biodiesel mix restores lubricity. "Technology-wise, (biodiesel) is a good solution." But Suppes said diesel refiners sometimes prefer to produce solutions internally rather than rely on external suppliers. "It's difficult to predict what the refiners will do."

The biodiesel board's Higgins said the market for the alternative fuel could climb to more than half a billion gallons per year if diesel refiners add just 2 percent biodiesel to their products. This could provide the economy of scale that would lower the price of the renewable fuel for everyone, Higgins said.

"Could we meet that demand instantly? No," said Higgins. She estimated that the 21 existing biodiesel production plants in the United States could produce up to 80 million gallons a year, and another 20 plants could quickly go online. Higgins said 90 percent of today's biodiesel comes from soy oil, and 10 percent from recycled cooking oil. Other feedstocks, such as animal carcasses, could be used to fill any gap, according to Higgins.

Biodiesel currently costs between 20 cents and 30 cents more per gallon than standard diesel, Higgins said, but pending legislation may help to make it more economical. In May, the Senate passed a bill that would give a 1 cent tax credit for each percent of biodiesel blended with petroleum diesel.

Higgins said that if gasoline prices continue to climb and the tax credit becomes law, biodiesel could become cost-competitive with petroleum. "Anything that lessens our demand on foreign oil helps," Higgins said.

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