Did you know biofuels aren’t new? In fact, biofuels have been around as long as cars have. At the start of the 20th century, Henry Ford planned to fuel his Model Ts with ethanol, and early diesel engines were shown to run on peanut oil. In South Africa, biodiesel was considered, particularly by the agricultural industry, as a replacement for diesel in agriculture and the technical developments of manufacturing this fuel and proving its efficiency were conducted from 1979 to 1983. With the recent rise in fuel prices, growing concern about global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions, and the local government’s renewed support of biofuels, they have been regaining popularity.
What is biodiesel?
Vegetable oils and animal fats are converted into biodiesel via a chemical process called transesterification, after which they’re blended with diesel and used in trucks. Transesterification sounds complicated, but it is a pretty simple chemical reaction (you can actually make biodiesel in your garage); compared with ethanol, the biodiesel production process takes less energy and has lower direct emissions.
The main source of emissions for biodiesel comes from the vegetable oils and fats it is made out of, and not the process of converting them to fuel. Canola biodiesel takes advantage of a substance which has a much higher oil content than some of the other available choices. Canola oil has approximately a 43% oil content, where comparable oils offer a much lower percentage. This makes canola extremely efficient for use in biodiesel production.
Biodiesel is most often sold as a blend of up to 5 percent biodiesel mixed with petroleum diesel. This is labelled as ordinary diesel fuel consistent with the official specifications. Some trucks can use up to a 20 percent biodiesel blend, but distribution challenges associated with marketing different blends for different vehicles have limited the adoption of these higher blends.
Is it good for the planet?
Canola-based biofuels are proven to work and are already delivering tangible emissions reductions now in Canada, the US, and the EU. Canola biodiesel contains about 10% oxygen by weight. The amount of oxygen contained in fuel is what leads to a reduction of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and toxins that contribute to the emissions factor. Canola oil biodiesel is cleaner-burning than petroleum diesel fuel because of its high oxygen percentage. In fact, canola biodiesel helps reduce green-house gas lifecycle emissions by up to 90% compared to fossil diesel. The carbon dioxide released by a vehicle when canola biodiesel is burned is offset by the carbon dioxide captured when the crop is grown. This is different from diesel which is refined from petroleum extracted from the earth.
While rising fuel costs contribute to the search for diesel alternatives, the environmental implications come into play as well. Canola biodiesel biodegrades up to five times faster than petroleum diesel, making it a healthy and environmentally-friendly choice. In conjunction with the sustainable farming practices growing in popularity among South African canola farmers, the entire lifecycle of canola – from growing to biodiesel – could prove to be much greener as a long-term solution.