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Biodiesel Basics


What is biodiesel?

Biodiesel is a renewable, clean-burning diesel replacement that is reducing U.S. dependence on foreign petroleum, creating jobs and improving the environment. Made from a diverse mix of feedstocks including recycled cooking oil, soybean oil, and animal fats, it is the first and only EPA-designated Advanced Biofuel in commercial-scale production across the country and the first to reach 1 billion gallons of annual production. Meeting strict technical fuel quality and engine performance specifications, it can be used in existing diesel engines without modification and is covered by all major engine manufacturers’ warranties, most often in blends of up to 5 percent or 20 percent biodiesel. It is produced at plants in nearly every state in the country.

With less than a decade of commercial-scale production, the industry is proud of its careful approach to growth and strong focus on sustainability. Production has increased from about 25 million gallons in the early 2000s to almost 1.1 billion gallons in 2012. This represents a small but growing component of the annual U.S. on-road diesel market of about 35 billion to 40 billion gallons. Consistent with projected feedstock availability, the industry has established a goal of producing about 10 percent of the diesel transportation market by 2022.

Reaching that goal would significantly lessen U.S. dependence on imported oil, bolstering national security and reducing our trade deficit. At the same time, biodiesel’s growth would boost the U.S. economy, not just by creating jobs but also by reducing our dependence on global oil markets and vulnerability to price spikes. There are currently about 200 biodiesel plants across the country – from Washington state to Iowa to North Carolina – with registered capacity to produce some 3 billion gallons of fuel. The industry is supporting more than 62,000 jobs, generating billions of dollars in GDP, household income and tax revenues. The industry’s economic impact is poised to grow significantly with continued production increases. The industry supports jobs in a variety of sectors, from manufacturing to transportation, agriculture and service.

The EPA has recognized biodiesel’s environmental benefits by classifying it as an Advanced Biofuel, making biodiesel the only commercial-scale U.S. fuel produced nationwide to meet the agency’s advanced criteria. According to the EPA, biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by at least 57 percent and up to 86 percent when compared to petroleum diesel – making it one of the most practical and cost-effective ways to immediately address climate change. In addition, biodiesel sharply reduces major tailpipe pollutants from petroleum diesel, particularly from older diesel vehicles. This is important because the EPA has consistently cited diesel exhaust – primarily from older trucks, buses and other vehicles – as one of the nation's most dangerous pollutants.

Biodiesel is produced using a broad variety of resources. This diversity has grown significantly in recent years, helping shape a nimble industry that is constantly searching for new technologies and feedstocks. In fact, industry demand for less expensive, reliable sources of fats and oils is stimulating promising research on next-generation feedstocks such as algae and camelina.

Technical Definition for Biodiesel (ASTM D 6751) and Biodiesel Blend:
Biodiesel, n - a fuel comprised of mono-alkyl esters of long chain fatty acids derived from vegetable oils or animal fats, designated B100, and meeting the requirements of ASTM D 6751. 

Biodiesel Blend, n - a blend of biodiesel fuel meeting ASTM D 6751 with petroleum-based diesel fuel, designated BXX, where XX represents the volume percentage of biodiesel fuel in the blend.

How is biodiesel made?
Biodiesel is made through a chemical process called transesterification whereby the glycerin is separated from the fat or vegetable oil. The process leaves behind two products -- methyl esters (the chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerin (a valuable byproduct usually sold to be used in soaps and other products).

Is Biodiesel the same thing as raw vegetable oil?
No! Fuel-grade biodiesel must be produced to strict industry specifications (ASTM D6751) in order to insure proper performance. Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to have fully completed the health effects testing requirements of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Biodiesel that meets ASTM D6751 and is legally registered with the Environmental Protection Agency is a legal motor fuel for sale and distribution. Raw vegetable oil cannot meet biodiesel fuel specifications, it is not registered with the EPA, and it is not a legal motor fuel.

For entities seeking to adopt a definition of biodiesel for purposes such as federal or state statute, state or national divisions of weights and measures, or for any other purpose, the official definition consistent with other federal and state laws and Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) guidelines is as follows:

Biodiesel is defined as mono-alkyl esters of long chain fatty acids derived from vegetable oils or animal fats which conform to ASTM D6751 specifications for use in diesel engines. Biodiesel refers to the pure fuel before blending with diesel fuel. Biodiesel blends are denoted as, "BXX" with "XX" representing the percentage of biodiesel contained in the blend (ie: B20 is 20% biodiesel, 80% petroleum diesel).

Why should I use biodiesel?
Biodiesel is better for the environment because it is made from renewable resources and has lower emissions compared to petroleum diesel. It is less toxic than table salt and biodegrades as fast as sugar. Produced domestically with natural resources, its use decreases our dependence on imported fuel and contributes to our own economy.

Where do I get biodiesel?
Biodiesel is available nationwide. It can be purchased directly from biodiesel producers and marketers, petroleum distributors, or at a handful of public retailers throughout the nation.

For additional information on biodiesel see: