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With prices at the pump climbing to record highs, consumers are beginning to look for new sources of cheaper and more environmentally friendly sources of energy. As the United States continues to fight terrorism in the Middle East, there are growing concerns regarding the United States’ dependence on foreign countries such as Iraq and Iran as our source of oil. The United States should adopt alternative fuels such as biodiesel because it is cheaper to run, better for the environment, and would decrease the amount of oil imported into the United States.
Currently, the United States tops every other country in the amount of oil consumed 19,650,000 barrels per day (one barrel (bbl) is equal to 42 gallons). This figure is almost five million more barrels per day than the next closest country, the European Union. The gap to third is even more apparent with Japan consuming 5,290,000 barrels per day. To put these numbers into perspective, the amount of oil consumed by the United States accounts for roughly 25% of the oil consumed in the world (Oil). One statistic that may surprise some people is the amount of oil the United States produces. The US comes in third behind Saudi Arabia and Russia with about 8,700,000 barrels of oil produced per day (Top). To make up for the almost 11 million barrel difference, the US imports about 13 million barrels of oil per day, which is second behind only the European Union, who imports about 15.7 million (CIA).
It is estimated that the United States uses about 55 billion gallons of diesel every year, which is equal to about 1.3 billion barrels per year, or roughly 3.6 million barrels per day. Looking at these statistics, it is easy to see that diesel only makes up a very small percentage of the oil used in the United States, about 18 percent (Mello).
Most people are unclear of where diesel comes from or even how it is made. Diesel is actually made from regular crude oil through a series of refinement. The process is as follows:
Crude oil that is pumped out of the ground is composed of thousands of different hydrocarbon compounds. The carbon atoms link together in chains of different lengths, shapes and sizes. Each individual chain length or molecular size has different properties including progressively higher boiling points, so they can be separated by boiling point or distillation.

Distillation is the first major process at an oil refinery. As the crude oil is heated, different hydrocarbon compounds are separated by their boiling temperatures. The lightest components such as ethane and propane come off the top of the distillation tower. The next components, called naphtha, are used for making gasoline.

The next heavier portion of crude oil coming from the distillation tower is used to make diesel fuel. Diesel fuel contains larger hydrocarbon molecules, with more carbon atoms than gasoline. Simple distillation does not produce enough gasoline and diesel fuel, so heavier fractions of crude oil are broken into smaller compounds by thermal or catalytic cracking, or hydrocracking, to produce higher volumes of gasoline and diesel fuel. To lower the level of sulphur in the fuel, some of these fractions may be hydrotreated. Various component streams are blended to meet the required diesel fuel specifications. (How)
Diesel provides a few distinct advantages over regular gasoline. A diesel engine is much more efficient than a regular gasoline engine – usually by about 40% over similarly powered engines. An equal volume of diesel will also produce about 10-20% more energy than gasoline. This translates to increased gas mileage and more power at lower RPMs. One example is the Skoda Octavia, which boasts an impressive 53.3 miles per gallon using a 105 horsepower engine (Diesel).
Just by looking at these numbers and taking the high cost of gasoline into consideration, one would guess that the number of diesel-powered vehicles in use today would be relatively high, but only 3.4% of vehicles sold in the United States are fueled by diesel (Mello).
One of the biggest concerns about the increasing use of gasoline is the adverse effects the combustion and exhaust process have on the environment. One form of diesel – biodiesel – has all the advantages of regular diesel but drastically reduces the amount of harmful substances released into the atmosphere.
Biodiesel is a relatively new form of diesel, but it is quickly gaining popularity. The definition of biodiesel is:
Biodiesel is a diesel-like fuel derived from vegetable oil or other renewable resources. It can be made from soy or canola oil, waste cooking oil, and even animal fats. Biodiesel is made by combining the vegetable oil with alcohol [usually methanol but occasionally ethanol] in the presence of a catalyst through a process called transeterification. (Kahn)

The sale of biodiesel in the United States has tripled over the last year to over 75 million gallons (California). There was also a 5,000 percent increase from the year 1999 to 2003 (Mello). Over 250 major fleets currently use biodiesel include all four branches of the Unites States military. NASA and Yellowstone National Park are two other large organizations that have begun to see the advantages of using biodiesel (Exploring). In some states the United States Postal Service has also switched to using biodiesel in their vehicles (Kahn).
Biodiesel can be used in existing diesel engines with little or no modification. When mixed to a B20 grade (20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum), the amount of wear on an engine decreases and the overall lubricity is improved. Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel that can maintain or even extend the life of the engine (Ekre).
According to an article on Edmund’s website posted on September 9, 2004, biodiesel is a much more environmentally friendly combustible fuel than regular petroleum or diesel. Biodiesel is nontoxic as well as biodegradable. Biodiesel also contains nearly zero sulfur and carcinogenic benzene, two byproducts in regular diesel the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has placed strict restrictions on.
Carbon monoxide emissions are reduced by approximately 50 percent and carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by about 78 percent when biodiesel is used over regular petroleum. Biodiesel also contains a small amount of aromatic hydrocarbons and sulfur emissions are eliminated completely. Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to pass both Tier I and II of the Health Effects Testing requirements located in the Clean Air Act of 1990 (Biodiesel).
The Edmund’s article also states that Biodiesel is made from crops or materials that are entirely produced in the United States. This factor will help reduce the United States’ dependency on foreign countries as our main source of oil.
Biodiesel’s uses aren’t limited to just automobiles. An article on the Natural Choice directory website states that biodiesel can be used as a home-heating fuel. Any grade of biodiesel can be used from B5 all the way up to B100 if the furnace is an oil burning furnace. Biodiesel is also growing in popularity among the marine sector. Operators are switching to biodiesel in order to protect the aquatic life in the waters as well as the environment (Easier).
Biodiesel is also a renewable source of energy. An article on www.actionbioscience.org states that biodiesel can be made from renewable sources such as fat and oils, like vegetable oil and canola oil, by a simple refining process.
There are a few disadvantages to biodiesel as well. Biodiesel is as expensive, or in some cases significantly more expensive, than regular diesel and biodiesel can actually cause as much pollution as regular gasoline or diesel. An article posted on the Consumer Energy Council of America website reports that biodiesel produces an increased level of nitrogen oxide released into the atmosphere. The report also says biodiesel releases the same amount of hydrocarbons as regular diesel into the atmosphere upon combustion.
Biodiesel also costs about one cent more per gallon for every percent added to the mix. This means that B20, the common blend used in most biodiesel powered cars, would cost $0.20 more per gallon than regular diesel.
Another costing factor of biodiesel is the consideration needed to be taken when storing and transporting the fuel. According to an article on Sustainable Resources’ website, biodiesel does not perform well under colder temperatures. Biodiesel also freezes at a higher temperature. Because of this property, the cost of storage and transportation is increased. Also, if biodiesel is stored in a high temperature, the oil will begin to mold.
Another misconception some people have is that homemade biodiesel made with kits that convert used cooking oil to usable biodiesel is just as good as refined biodiesel. Running converted cooking oil may cause more harm than good. Jack Blanchard, assistant chief engineer for diesel at General motors, says “there is nothing wrong with making biodiesel from used oil if it is run through the proper refining process, but doing it in your garage scares the heck out of me” (Mello).
Another problem facing biodiesel is that it is hydrophilic in nature. The water present in biodiesel can come from either processing or from storage tank condensation. The presence of water in biodiesel will reduce the heat of combustion which can cause more smoke, decrease the starting ability of the engine, and create less power. Water can also degrade or corrode fuel system components such as pumps, filters, and lines (Biodiesel).
The cost of biodiesel may make people wary of its use, but like most products, the price of biodiesel could be greatly reduced if biodiesel reached a larger market. New processes and technologies could be developed that could significantly lower the cost of biodiesel. Newer forms of biodiesel could also be developed that contain different chemical compositions. These improved versions of biodiesel would not have the same physical properties of conventional biodiesel which could lessen or even eliminate certain problems biodiesel encounters at low or high temperatures. Michikazu Hara of the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Yokohama, Japan has found new ways to create biodiesel that are about one-tenth to one-fifteenth cheaper than before. The new process involves common, inexpensive sugars forming a recyclable solid acid that can fuel an engine (Handwerk).
After considering all the negatives or disadvantages of using biodiesel, one or two problems facing the use of biodiesel does not come close to outweighing the positives biodiesel offer. Even though biodiesel has the potential to release an increased amount of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere, the amount of other pollutants released as byproducts of combustion would be greatly decreased. The use of biodiesel would not only positively affect the situation we are facing with global warming, but the air we breathe would be greatly improved.
At some point there is not going to be enough petroleum in the ground or in the world to meet the demand of everyone if things do not change. There may come a time when the amount of oil used to find, extract, and refine oil surpasses the amount being extracted. “By definition, energy ‘sources’ must generate more energy than they consume’; otherwise, they are ‘sinks’” states Jay Hanson, an oil industry watcher (Rodman).
Biodiesel may not be the best alternative to regular gasoline or diesel, but it would be a largely positive move in the right direction. With relations between the United States and the Middle East deteriorating by the day, it is important that the United States develop new sources of energy to lower our dependence on foreign countries. Alternative fuels could also vastly improve the environment we live in by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases. This could also halt the threat of global warming; a growing concern that poses serious problems if nothing is done to prevent it from causing irreparable damage.