By Leigh Howe

I’ve happened upon the mention of biodiesel or “soy diesel” several times in the last two weeks and became curious. Grand Rapids, Michigan has begun testing the fuel in city vehicles; Hammond, Indiana is running school business on the alternative fuel; and the television show “West Wing” even mentioned it on their season premier. Our research frequently takes us into the realm of biotechnology or agribusiness industry intelligence — so I wondered exactly what is biodiesel fuel?

Another Bio Definition. Biodiesel, which can be made from animal fat or a variety of vegetable oils, works in any diesel engine with few or no modifications and performs like diesel fuel according to the National Biodiesel Board. Biodiesel is produced from refined soybean oil and grease recycled from restaurants. The alternative fuel can be used in pure form or blended in varying amounts with regular diesel, the most common level being 20 percent biodiesel to 80 percent diesel.

Would You Like Fries with That? Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to have passed the health effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act, and has been shown to reduce carcinogenic air toxins by 75 to 90 percent as compared to regular diesel. Since it is made in the USA from renewable resources such as soybeans, its use decreases our dependence on foreign oil and contributes to our own economy. And, biodiesel fumes smell a lot better – similar to French fries or potatoes baking.

Small but Growing. Biodiesel use is increasing significantly. In January of 1999, there were only a few fleets buying and using biodiesel. By January 2002 there were well over 100 major fleets that had implemented biodiesel programs across the country including federal fleets such as US Postal Service, the US Air Force, the US Army, the US Department, NASA, along with many state fleets, public utility fleets, and city buses. In 2002, output of biodiesel should total 20 to 25 million gallons, according to the National Biodiesel Board, and it is forecast to rise to 30 to 40 million gallons in 2003.

Soy Support. Political and public support has been growing significantly as well. The US Congress is considering two bills that would increase biodiesel use to help meet national energy goals. Biodiesel is also now included in major state legislation. In 2001, 15 states passed legislation favorable to biodiesel. Additionally, fuel injection equipment manufacturers are touting biodiesel as a superior renewable lubricity additive and many major diesel engine manufacturers are actively working with the industry on research and development activities surrounding biodiesel.

Shows Promise. As the government and fuel and equipment industry groups move to improve performance and emissions of diesel technology, it is clear that diesel will continue to be the preferred platform of heavy-duty application for the foreseeable future. Futhermore, global warming and greenhouse gasses will continue to gain attention. Biodiesel addresses both of these issues at once. For more information about the alternative fuel, visit