Biodiesel as a transportation fuel

A bus powered by soybean oil
A Bus Powered by Soybean Oil

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

Most of the trucks, buses, and tractors in the United States use diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is a nonrenewable fuel made from petroleum. Using biodiesel fuel produces less pollution than using petroleum diesel fuel. Any vehicle that operates on diesel fuel can use biodiesel.

Biodiesel fuel has chemical characteristics similar to petroleum-based diesel, so it can be used as a direct substitute for diesel fuel. Biodiesel fuel can also be blended with petroleum diesel in any percentage without reducing vehicle fuel economy.

Biodiesel blends

Any diesel engine can use biodiesel at blend levels of 5% by volume (B5) or lower. A blend of 20% biodiesel with 80% petroleum diesel is known as B20. Some federal and state government fleets, such as school and transit buses, snowplows, garbage trucks, mail trucks, and military vehicles, use biodiesel. Public fueling stations that sell biodiesel blends to the public are available in nearly every state.

Low-level biodiesel blends like B2 and B5 are popular fuels in the trucking industry because biodiesel has excellent lubricating properties, so the blends can benefit engine performance.

Pure biodiesel (often called B100) and biodiesel blends are sensitive to cold weather and may require a special type of anti-freeze, just like petroleum-based diesel fuel. Biodiesel acts like a detergent additive, loosening and dissolving sediments in storage tanks. Because biodiesel is a solvent, B100 may cause rubber and other components to fail in older vehicles. This problem does not occur with biodiesel blends.

Biodiesel use has increased substantially since 2001

Because of biodiesel's environmental benefits, ease of use, and available subsidies, biodiesel use in the United States grew from about 10 million gallons in 2001 to 354 million gallons in 2007. Consumption dropped in 2008 and then increased in 2009. Consumption dropped to about 260 million gallons in 2010, as the federal excise tax credit for biodiesel blending expired. In 2011, the tax credit was extended for one year, and substantial quantities of biodiesel were used to meet the Renewable Fuels Standard. These factors contributed to an increase in consumption to 886 million gallons in 2011. Consumption has generally increased since 2012, reaching about 2.1 billion gallons in 2016.

In 2001, total world biodiesel consumption was about 0.3 billion gallons. In 2014, about 8.1 billion gallons of biodiesel were consumed in at least 50 countries, and 54% was consumed in five countries.

World biodiesel consumption, 2014

  Billion gallons Share of total
World total 8.1  
United States 1.5 19%
Brazil 0.9 11%
France 0.8 10%
Germany 0.6   8%
Indonesia 0.6   7%
All others 3.7 46%