BioDiesel In New York City: An AltEnergyNYC Explainer


By Leif Skodnick

April 15, 2014

[Biodiesel] River take my mind/Don’t let [used cooking oil] torture me.” – Willie Nelson (sort of)

If you’ve read anything about alternative fuels, you probably have heard of biodiesel, an alternative to petroleum-based diesel fuel that can be produced from cooking oil. Got questions? AltEnergyNYC has answers!

So what exactly is Biodiesel?

The simple answer: biodiesel is a fuel made mostly from plant oils that can be burned for energy. But it’s actually more complex than that. According to the National Biodiesel Board’s website,

“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.”

Kooky – so how is it made?

Basically, a big load of oil is put in a tank, some chemicals are added, there’s a reaction that scientists call transesterification, and you end up with biodiesel and byproducts. Goshen College’s chemistry department website has a page that explains the chemistry pretty well:

“Vegetable oil, like biodiesel, belongs to a category of compounds called esters. Therefore, converting vegetable oil into biodiesel is called atransesterification reaction. Doing this reaction requires using methanol (shown in green), which causes the red bonds in the structure below to break. This breaks off the blue section, like a backbone on the molecule, which becomes glycerol.”

So it replaces regular diesel fuel?

Sort of. Most biodiesel is mixed with regular diesel fuel before it can be pumped into a tank to fuel a diesel engine. To be used in diesel engines, biodiesel must comply with the ASTM International standard D6751-12, titled “Standard Specification for Biodiesel Fuel Blend Stock (B100) for Middle Distillate Fuels.” If you want to read all the technical stats that define biodiesel, visit ASTM’s website which contains standard D6751-12.

How do I know if the diesel I’m buying contains biodiesel?

That’s pretty easy. If they fuel you’re buying contains biodiesel, the pump will show how much biodiesel is in the fuel. Look for a sticker that says “Bx” – where x is a number between one and 100, which is the percentage of biodiesel in the fuel. Generally, you won’t see B100 at the pump, but you will see B20 fairly commonly. For more on the specifications of B100 and B6-B20, visit the U.S. Deparment of Energy’s Alternative Energy Data Center.

Can it be used for things other than diesel fuel?

Yes. In fact, since 2010, New York City has required that home heating oil used in the city contain at least 2 percent biodiesel. The fuel, called BioHeat, burns cleaner than regular heating oil due to its low sulfur content. The industry trade group New York Oil Heating Association has a page devoted to BioHeat.

Is biodiesel is easily available in the city?

Yes. In fact, Tri-State Biodiesel, located in Hunts Point, produces and sells biodiesel for the metropolitan area. The company collects used cooking oil, processes it into biodiesel, and delivers it to customers in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.

Failed mayoral candidate and supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis is building a biodiesel refinery in Greenpoint. His company, United Biofuels, bought the unfinished plant out of bankruptcy. According to The New York World, the plant could produce as much as 50 million gallons of biodiesel each year.

So what does Willie Nelson have to do with this?

Shotgun Willie is a big proponent of biodiesel. He markets Biowillie, his own brand of biodiesel. Nelson uses biodiesel to fuel his famous tour bus, the Honeysuckle Rose, each time he goes on the road again.



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