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Biodiesel: Canada's future?

by Kelly Robertson

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Scott Lewis, an executive at Biox Corp in Hamilton, talks about one of the perks of his job: "Dealing with a beneficial product is absolutely enticing," he says. "It's absolutely fantastic."

Lewis is referring to biodiesel, a new fuel derived from plant oils, animal fats, and recycled cooking oil. It has garnered a great deal of attention for its environmental benefits and is being touted as an alternative to petroleum diesel.

With the threat of global warming, and governments trying to reach Kyoto targets, most of the attention has centred on biodiesel's lower greenhouse gas emissions. Biodiesel contains oxygen, which allows for a cleaner burn.

When a car accelerates, fuel is placed into the combustion chamber, where it is starved of oxygen, which is required for things to burn. Petroleum diesel contains no oxygen, so when it reaches the combustion chamber it stops burning. The unburned fuel is then released into the air, visible as black smoke coming from the exhaust.

Biodiesel: Canada's future?  

Biodiesel is oxygenated, so when it reaches the combustion chamber it can continue to burn. This decreases the amount of harmful gases emitted into the surrounding air. It has been shown that using biodiesel, either by itself or blended with petroleum diesel, significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

On top of this, biodiesel is free of the carcinogens associated with petroleum diesel. It is also biodegradable and, because it can be produced domestically, could reduce our dependence on foreign oil supplies.

Biodiesel, however, is not without its downsides. "Cost has been an overwhelming problem from the beginning," says Lewis. "A product can be completely environmentally beneficial, but if it doesn't cost the same, people cannot afford to buy it."

High cost of production mainly contributes to biodiesel's high cost. It is produced in a process called transesterfication, which requires chemicals and energy, both of which are expensive. In the past these costs were often exacerbated by limitations on the availability of feedstock: biodiesel could only be made from pure seed oils such as grapeseeds. This increased production costs while restricting the number and size of yields that could be made.

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