The world is in the midst of an energy crisis because of the pandemic as the price of crude oil and gasoline has been sky high for much of the year. The fluctuation of oil and gasoline prices has reemphasized the need to look for fuel alternatives and try to lessen our dependence on crude oil. One key to alternative fuels is the repurposing of used cooking oil (UCO) into renewable biodiesel.
The production of biofuels using recycled UCO has gained momentum as we continue to seek reliable, eco-friendly fuel alternatives for a range of uses. Lessening our dependence on crude oil for renewable fuel alternatives can help stabilize energy security in the U.S. and throughout the world. Restaurants and other foodservice businesses are in a unique position to contribute to energy security by working with a professional like Mahoney Environmental to pick up and recycle their used cooking oil so it can be used in the production of renewable biodiesel fuel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
Is Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO) a Good Alternative Fuel Source?
Biofuels are made from animal fats and oils including sugar cane, corn starch, soybean oil, and canola oil. It is possible to use straight vegetable oils (SVO) for fuel production as the recycled oil is fermented to form bio alcohols including ethanol, propanol, and butanol. Ethanol is the most commonly used bio alcohol and is the main ingredient in E85 fuel that can be used in flexible fuel vehicles.
It is important to note that fuels made from SVO differ from biodiesel fuels that are also made from oils and animal fats. Fuels made from SVO have been shown to be serviceable in the short-term, but they are not a good fuel alternative for the long term. This is because SVO has a high viscosity (thickness) and high boiling point compared to regular diesel fuel that cause carbon deposits to buildup within the engine and components, such as fuel pumps and injectors, and within the engine lubricant over time. The carbon buildup (coking) can contribute to higher engine maintenance costs as well as shorter engine life.
Biodiesel is made from SVO but with a different process. For biodiesel production, SVO is converted with the process of transesterification involving a reaction with methanol using caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) as a catalyst. This process lowers the viscosity and boiling point of biodiesel compared to fuels made with SVO which improves the performance and longevity of engines. Biodiesel is commonly blended with petroleum diesel fuel and all diesel engines can run on B5 which is a blend that contains 95% petroleum diesel and 5% biodiesel. Some engines are also approved to use blends up to B20 which is 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel.
What are the economic benefits of biodiesel production?
While there is still a long way to go before we end our dependence on fossil fuels, there appear to be several potential benefits of switching to biofuels. The following are the main ways that biofuel production can benefit the economy and environment.
- Renewable: Unlike fossil fuels made from crude oil, biofuels are renewable because they are produced from renewable sources. The vegetables that are used to produce oils can be grown again which means that the production of biodiesel could be sustained indefinitely, in theory.
- Reduction in GHG emissions: It is no secret that burning fossil fuel creates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are harmful to the environment. The EPA found in their 2010 analysis of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that over a 30-year time period, biofuels could yield lower lifecycle GHG emissions than regular gasoline.
- Pollutant emission reduction: Fossil fuels produce pollutant emissions from partial combustion. The combustion of biofuels is more complete which reduces pollutant emissions.
- Domestic production: The ability to produce biofuels domestically can decrease the amount of fossil fuels imported into the U.S. The reduced dependence on foreign oil can protect from the impacts of supply issues, such as the issue created by the pandemic that has resulted in high gasoline prices, and reduce the price of petroleum due to a decrease in demand.
In order for these benefits to be fully realized, the production and consumption of biofuels must coincide with a reduction in the production and consumption of fossil fuels. Biofuel consumption will have very little effect on the economy and environment if the production and use of fossil fuels continues. We will fully realize the benefits of biofuels only when they displace fossil fuels.
What are the challenges presented by biofuel production?
Biodiesel production and use has potential benefits, but there are also challenges to switching to biodiesel that must be resolved. The following are the main challenges of switching to biofuels:
- Increase in crop production: The crops that are used to produce biofuels would otherwise be used for animal feed or human consumption. This means that with some of these crops being used for biofuel production, more crops would need to be grown for animal feed and human consumption. This will result in more land being devoted to agriculture and may contribute to increased pollution and higher food prices.
- Increase in GHG emissions: While the use of biofuels may decrease GHG emissions, changes in land use can increase GHG emissions by releasing terrestrial carbon stocks into the atmosphere. The increase in the need for feedstocks can lead to higher crop prices which may cause agricultural production to occur on undeveloped land which will increase GHG emissions. Higher production of biofuels can also increase GHG emissions as biorefineries still operate on fossil fuels.
- Increased pollution: The increase in crop production could cause water pollution to increase from nutrients, pesticides, and sediment. Air pollution can also increase due to emissions from biorefineries.
- Higher crop prices: Several studies have shown that an increase in the production and use of biofuels could cause higher crop prices, but the estimates put forth by these studies range anywhere from a 2 percent to a 53 percent increase. Therefore, it is difficult to tell exactly how biofuel production will affect crop prices, and by extension, retail food prices.
How U.S. Policy Supports Biofuel Production
There have been several policies passed in the U.S. to help encourage the production of biofuels with economic incentives, including tax credits. The following are the two main policies supporting biofuel production:
- Energy Policy Act of 2005: This act was passed to promote biofuel research and development and offers grants, income tax credits, subsidies, loans, and other economic incentives. It also establishes the Renewable Fuel Standard which called for a blending of 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels with gasoline annually by 2012.
- Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA): EISA expanded the Renewable Fuel Standard to 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels annually by 2022. Of this amount, 21 billion gallons must come from feedstocks that are not cornstarch including cellulosic biofuel or advanced biofuels from other feedstocks. The Act also states that renewable fuels from corn starch must reduce life cycle GHG emissions relative to that of fossil fuels by 20 percent, while it is 50 percent for biodiesel and advanced biofuels, and 60 percent for cellulosic biofuels. EISA offers many of the same economic incentives as the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
How Your Business Can Help
The economic and environmental benefits of biodiesel show some promise, but there is still work to be done to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and combat some of the negative consequences of biodiesel production. Meanwhile, more work and research are being put into biodiesel production to make the switch from fossil fuels possible.
Your foodservice business can help in the effort to replace fossil fuels with biodiesel by working with a licensed UCO recycler like Mahoney Environmental. We provide used cooking oil pickup and recycling services in which we will collect the UCO from your business and take it to our facility where it can be recycled and sent for biofuel production. Regular UCO pickups from our professionals will help improve the safety and efficiency of your kitchen and contribute to the advancements in the production and use of biodiesel.
Contact our professionals at Mahoney Environmental to learn more about our used cooking oil pickup and recycling services.