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Biodiesel: Fueling an Open Mind

As a way to further reflect on their experience with Campus Cupboard, polish their communication skills, and explore new topics related to food and sustainability, Campus Cupboard volunteers will be publishing weekly blogs this fall. Below, Oscar kicks off the “Food and Sustainability Series” with a topic he has been interested in learning more about. Check back each Monday for new musings from the students!

By Oscar Martinez (’16)

Last year, Minnesota increased the mandate from a 5 percent minimal biodiesel blend (B5) in its diesel fuel supply to B10. The shift occurred because biodiesel has demonstrated substantial reduction in particulate and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As the statue currently reads, Minnesota will be raising to B20 by 2018.

Biodiesel is a renewable, clean-burning substance made from oils and natural fats (e.g., soybean oil, and animal fats) that is reducing dependence of fossil fuels. If I was in the same mindset that I had been in three years ago and listened to these statements, I would be asking why the state is not aiming for higher biodiesel blends. Luckily (or maybe not), playing the scientist in college has opened my mind. Through lecture, lab research, and discussion, I have found that biodiesel and other renewable energy sources are not 100% practical.

Like other renewable fuel sources, biodiesel has trade-offs. Image source:
Like other renewable fuel sources, biodiesel has trade-offs. Image source:

Biodiesel may reduce carbon emissions, but it has been found to increase emissions of NO and NO2, nitrogen oxide gases that can cause respiratory damage. At the same time, biodiesel produced from saturated fatty acids (e.g., yellow grease) has the potential to freeze and form crystals that plug fuel filters. In the end, biodiesel is a potential danger.

The freezing issue explains why Minnesota only requires the B10 mandate from April – September, the summer months. For the colder weather months, October – March, B5 is acceptable. I found gas stations to be complying fairly well, as I measured the biodiesel percentage of four gas stations between B5 and B10.

Do not get me wrong. Renewable energy such as biodiesel has unlocked potential that can create a sustainable future by replacing fossil fuels while putting “waste” fuel to work. I want to tap into that potential just as much as the next environmentalist, but we still have giant steps to make. Many initiatives that have success at the small scale come across difficulties on a larger platform.

As a result, we have to find a delicate balance in using nonrenewable energy sources and renewable energy sources.

This topic deserves more pages, but unfortunately, I cannot do that right now (next week is mid-terms, and there is a correlation between procrastinating studying and receiving an unwanted grade).

Don’t let my studying prevent you from considering all the reasons why we are not running on 100% biodiesel (or any other nonrenewable energy source). I highlighted two potential effects of biodiesel to prevent you from seeing it with tunnel vision and assume it’s all positive. Do not be afraid to get out there and get the whole picture.

Biofuel will be fueling more cars by 2018. I hope that it can fuel a broader outlook in you by then as well.

Oscar Martinez is a senior at Augsburg College. He will graduate in spring 2016 with a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry. When Oscar is not playing scientist, he is engaging in work that helps the Augsburg community and the surrounding neighborhoods. If you see him around, give him money for a toasted bagel with honey almond smear. Kidding. Say a simple hello or start a conversation with him.