Current Status of the Renewable Diesel Chapter

Most sections are pretty well filled in. Below is what the outline looks like. I still have this weekend to work on it. What am I still missing? I am not quite satisfied with all of the titles. For instance, in “The Potential”, I do a thought experiment that I think demonstrates that thoughts of biofuels displacing major amounts of petroleum are completely unrealistic. So, “The Potential” isn’t quite right, but I have had writer’s block on that one.

My idea for that section was to basically show how much petroleum equivalent we could produce by planting the entire arable world in rapeseed. Any better ideas for demonstrating this? I started to go back to first principles and calculate using solar insolation and photosynthetic efficiency, but I think that’s more complex than it needs to be.

Here was the earlier outline.

Below is what I have now. I am still working on several sections – especially the green diesel section. Also, have I missed any really major feedstocks?

Renewable Diesel


The Diesel Engine

The Potential

Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO)


  • Definition/Production Process
  • Fuel Characteristics
  • Energy Return
  • Glycerin Byproduct
  • Animal versus Plant Sources

Green Diesel

  • Definition/Production
  • Hydroprocessing
  • BTL


  • Soybean Oil
  • Palm Oil
  • Rapeseed Oil
  • Jatropha
  • Algae
  • Animal Fats
  • Miscellaneous

Environmental Considerations


19 thoughts on “Current Status of the Renewable Diesel Chapter”

  1. As posted earlier, I’d suggest breaking the “feedstock” section down into three: Food crops, non-food crops and waste. As discussed elsewhere, waste is a plentiful source and a low hanging fruit. This may be a good opportunity to promote its use.

    Your section on “Potential” needs to be discussed against this background. I would move “Potential” down the list, to just before conclusions, because I think you need to flesh out most of the other issues, before you can really get to potential (production potential/replacement potential?).

    Do me a favor, would you? Please point out how dumb current biofuel policy (making fuel from food) is. Point out how that could end up turning most people against biofuels, when there are better ways to do things.

    Of course, converting waste to fuel will only get you so far. Once we have done a decent job of recovering the energy in waste, we’d need to look at other sources. This is where non-food crops would come in.

    As stated at the previous thread, I think algae can be cultivated at sea. Not a pretty picture, but if things get ugly, it’s an option.

  2. I would move “Potential” down the list, to just before conclusions,

    I actually had it in the conclusions until today, and I pulled it out and put it in an earlier section. I just want people to recognize up front that the tone of the chapter is not a manual on how to run the world’s energy needs on biofuels.

  3. I just want people to recognize up front that the tone of the chapter is not a manual on how to run the world’s energy needs on biofuels.
    Well, come-on Robert, you isn’t the whole point of sciece to aim for “objective” discussion as much as possible?

  4. Oh, I think it is pretty objective. But I want the realism to sink in up front.

    I think there are some really good options. Jatropha may really make a contribution. But palm oil, even though it is scaling up like mad, has some serious issues. And the bottom line is that biofuels simply will not displace much petroleum. Do they have a place? Yes. Should we base our energy policy on the unrealistic assumption that we can run the country on them? No.

    However, I do not voice my opinion, ever, in the chapter.

  5. Jatropha maybe has potential. If you google The Jakarta Post hard enough, you may find mainland China spending $5 billion in Indonesia on jatropha plantations (1 million hectares) and also D1 is planting 1 million hectares…my memory is that india is planning 60 million hectares….my back of the envelope math is that one million hectares provides 2 days US fossil fuel consumption equivalent…If the US would plant 100 mega-plantations, we would not have to import any more fossil fuel…remarkable stat.

  6. I think canola is a good choice for this. I’ve used (with fairly good success) the same method using only arable land in Canada, and then comparing it to the amount of oil Canada uses. Forgive the Canuck-o-centrism there, but I’ve found it seems to go across better here when one makes it seem more local.

  7. On environmental considerations, has anyone done a good “life cycle” analysis or something that considers all the inputs, outputs, limiting resources and the associated effects? The effect on soils appears to be of particular concern.

    A fellow blogger, Philip Small at Transect Points, is a soil scientist who appears to be a very level headed chap and might be a good source of information or of leads to this aspect of biofuels. One of his posts was titled “Biofuel demand pencils out to damaged soil”, referring to an editorial by the president of the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA).

    Most of the concern has been about crops for ethanol production but I assume somewhat of a similar risk is there for biodiesel production from crops, particularly with processes such as the new Wisconsin one that converts much more of the plant biomass.

    Besides soil, resources limiting biodiesel industry scale likely include fresh water for plant growth and processing, fertilizer, metals for catalysts and so on.

  8. And then there is the Farm Bill to skew economic decision making:

    on Mulch

    “The Pelosi Farm Bill: A Corn Subsidy Windfall”

    “The Speaker and Mrs. Bowles (Part I)”

    The map of the San Francisco Farm Bill beneficiaries is particularly illuminating.

  9. Yes, canola is of course carefully developed rapeseed, with the erucic acid pruned out so that it’s fit for human consumption. Here, at least, since canola is a very common food oil, and rapeseed is less known, I use canola, but the difference is of course academic. Sorry, I should have been clearer about that.

  10. I would suggest that anyone interested in the physics behind biofuels be sure to go to:

    Ted Patzek and David Pimental have researched and analyzed the mass and energy balance equations of biofuel and have found that all biofuels are net energy losers. As one perspicacious wag has said, biofuels are a method of laundering fossil fuel.

    At this site, you will find links to his papers.

    To hear a really succinct discussion of his ideas try this link:

  11. Cherenkov-

    I don’t care how hard Pimetel attempts to cook his statistics. There is no way you can make biodiesel a net energy loser. Everything I’ve seen shows a lifecycle return of over 3:1. If you also add up that much of the current feedstocks would be created without a biodiesel industry to buy them it gets even better.


    (I’m off topic but I believe still relevant to your discussion)

    Biofuels don’t need to be a full complete substitute for world petroleum to be a significant force for new technology development. The tone that any alternative fuel must be a true substitute or be irrelevant doesn’t make sense.

    Think about it in the context of the low-end number of only 2% of north American consumption could be met with biodiesel.

    That 2% is alot of newly minted millionaires investing in the US economy as opposed to the current export of our GDP. 5% for RandD of the gross sales of this 2% biofuel production number is even bigger. It would be a tidal wave bigger than any government’s attempt to research alternative energy and it would be market driven.

    Even if only 2% of north America’s petroleum use was displaced by the lower lieing feedstock opportunities this would cause some serious change. A 2% blendstock addition on the westcoast alone would alleviate some of the inflation in the crackspreads we’ve seen the last few years. It would also increase the number of upstream players which though small in volume might reduce overall pricing volitility.

    Though ag-based biodiesel costs more than petroleum the number of voluntary buyers (if you include the mandates popularly coming down the pipe) is pretty significant. This small new market for development is profound in two ways.

    It means new infrastructure is being built (look at Imperium Renewables as their facility is essentially the first new petroleum terminal to be built in over fifty years). As the pacific rim has excess capacity easily imported to the west coast tankage is a bigger part of the equation than refining right now.

    You also now have a floor for farmer’s rotation crops. With just 2% we can see a second coming of agriculture as farmers will have a safety net enabling them to expand production taking fallow fields into production. With the diversity of crops you can use for both ethanol and biodiesel this is huge.

    Even at 2% its a significant force for economic development with scant government subsidy compared to the similar subsidies offered to natural gas utilities, petroleum producers, and other energy industries.

    So, I would add two additional subtopic portions.

    Under “Def/Production” I would add “Emerging Technologies” which would include ‘algea’ and ‘answers to C02 regulations’ which would be the two silver bullets guanteeing biofuels stay forefront in the US energy production even if oil prices drop.

    I would also enter into the list of subtopics a section called “voluntary adopters” and “paradigm shifting technologies.” (Hopefully you don’t view these as off-topic.

    For voluntary adopters I would add the emmission differences for biofuels create a sweet spot where its a specialized fuel worth much more than petroleum. In particular in mining, construction and in electrical generation the emmission profile of biodiesel in particular makes it viable at a much more expensive price than petroleum diesel.

    For paradigm shifting the only one I can think of now is battery technology pushing fuel economy considerably up (reducing the cost of a biofuel voluntary adopter) and reducing the demand curve for petroleum. I’ve heard of other paradigm shifting scenerios but that’s all that comes to mind.

  12. Robert, don’t know if the Green Diesel section covers gasification of wood/cellulose and further Fischer/Trope production of distillates.

    If it doesn’t then this is another path to diesel from waste forestry products, but I’m sure you were already aware of that.



  13. There are a lot of hemp advocates who will tell you with evangelical fervor that hemp oil could solve this crisis if it were only legalized. I hope you will deal briefly with this. I think one of the comments on TOD gave hemp a pretty low productivity rating.

  14. Optimist said..
    Do me a favor, would you? Please point out how dumb current biofuel policy (making fuel from food) is. Point out how that could end up turning most people against biofuels, when there are better ways to do things.

    I could make an argument for using food crops for biofuel if you are going to do it at all. Now if there is a drought and people are hungry and they no longer care to drive their Hummer for instance and now they want to eat the crop that in good years went to run their vehicle, they can do it.
    But, you wouldn’t have that option if land was planted in ‘non’ food crops.
    A related issue is why are we still wasting so much energy, some of which (in the form of crude oil)goes right by Africa, when that energy could manufacture nitrogen fertilizer for the African farmers so that they could better feed their own people. In other words the argument can be made both ways. But my biggest complaint about bioenegy is that it deludes us into thinking we can grow ourselves out of energy shortages.

    It would be nice if 3 dollar a gallon gasoline would spur Conservation efforts here in the United States. But I don’t see it. What will it take to get this nation behind car pooling, a 4 day week and something more and something else that works. After all we have already out bid most people in the underdeveloped countries, now we are bidding agaist ourselves. It is Shameful that conservation is so under discussed and practiced.

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