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Why are we interested in biomass, biofuels and alternatives for cheap, proven petroleum products?

January 01, 2014
Joseph M. Perez
Online Only Articles


It all starts with our tremendous use of energy.   We guzzle it in our cars and our homes, industry, and security needs.  Our major problem is the tremendous amount we use and import. 

In 2010 it was over 20 million barrels per day.  We are looking at biofuels and lubricants but the solution to our energy problem is more complex and involves several alternative energy sources.  Petroleum is not an infinite source of energy.  

Figure 1. (Note: Quad is 1X1015 BTU)

Petroleum was discovered in the Pennsylvania in 1859 in Titusville, Pa, (Fig 1).  The output was about 20 barrels per day.  Until the late 1970’s the highest price for crude was during the Civil War, about 40 dollars per barrel. In 1964, the price of crude was about $10 per barrel and quality Pennsylvania Crude was about $14 per barrel.  Can you imagine one of the major concerns of the refineries at the time was how to get rid of excess low price gasoline.

Table 1.  Energy price summary

Recent prices are shown in Table 1.  Brent is a sweet light crude (0.37% S) from the North Sea.  It is a benchmark for imported crudes from the east. 

West Texas Intermediate Crude, is a sweet light crude (0.27% S) that is used as a benchmark for crudes from N and S America.  The prices affect the economy.  Transportation fuels and heating fuels increase accordingly.  

Our capacity to guzzle petroleum is shown in Fig 2.  In 1964, when oil was $10 to 14 per barrel, we were using less than half the petroleum we use today.   Transportation was the major consumer of petroleum, consuming some 60 to 70% of the petroleum.  The problem is that some 60% of the petroleum we are consuming in 2010 was imported.   

Over the last 50 years our use of petroleum in the US has increased by more than a factor of ten (1000%).  We love our cars- the transportation sector has been and is still the major consumer of petroleum. It consumes over 60% of the petroleum (~20 million bbls/day).  A positive note is that it has only increased 20 percent in the same 50 year time period, due to auto industry mileage increases, dieselization of trucks, etc.   

Figure 2. Note: A Barrel of oil equivalent (boe) = approx. 6.1 GJ (5.8 million Btu), equivalent to 1,700 kWh. "Petroleum barrel" is a liquid measure equal to 42 U.S. gallons (35 Imperial gallons or 159 liters); about 7.2 barrels oil are equivalent to one tonne of oil (metric) = 42-45 GJ.

Figure 3. Renewable Energy Use 2009 , 7.7 Quads.

To strive for energy independence, we have looked to alternative sources of energy including biomass and biofuels.  We are making progress, Fig 3, but as of 2009, only about 8 percent of the energy used in the US was from renewable resources.   Biofuels made up 20% of the total renewables.

The diesel engine is the major user of biofuels.  Rudolf Diesel circa 1894 set out to develop an engine to run on the efficient Carnot cycle and burn coal tar  products.  At the Paris Exposition in 1900, several of Diesel’s engines were on display.  The French Otto Co. ran one of the small diesel engines on peanut oil (arachide oil).   Few were aware of the difference since it performed similarly to those running on petroleum.  Rudolf Diesel became famous and wealthy and predicted the use of vegetable oils in time would be as important as the use of petroleum and coal tar products of the time  [1].

Vegetable oils have been used as alternative fuels for years, especially during World War II in areas where petroleum shortages existed.  Most diesels during this time period were primarily a prechamber type design that could burn vegetable oils without major problems.  However, at that time diesels did not have the major share of the transportation engine market.  They were used in trains and ships but most on-highway heavy duty vehicles of the time were powered by gasoline engines.  Therefore, there was limited use of vegetable oils as fuel.  

Two things changed that.  First, In the late 1960’s the development of more efficient direct injection diesel engines led to the displacement of gasoline engines as the primary source of power for heavy duty on-highway vehicles.  Second, concerns over petroleum reserves and the oil crisis of 1973 led to renewed interest in vegetable oils.  Engine tests by the Ag Engrg Center (Australia), Caterpillar and Deutz showed that the higher viscosity of vegetable oil compared to diesel fuel led to fuel system problems in direct injection engines [2, 3].  The solution was the use of biodiesel.  The first patent on the preparation of biodiesel was not granted until 1937.  Belgian Patent No. 422,877 was granted to C. G. Chavanne (University of Brussels) on August 31, 1937.  Although there was some interest in the late 50’s and 60’s, it was the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970’s that catalyzed a new interest in domestic, renewable liquid transportation fuels. 

In the late 1980’s the United Soybean Association and its State Soybean Affiliates developed the concept for a national soybean checkoff program that  fueled a serious interest in biodiesel.   In 1990, Congress and the USDA ensured that the soybean checkoff was created and operating in the best interest of the soybean farmers when the Soybean Promotion and Research Order was authorized by the Soybean Promotion, Research, and Consumer Information Act [7 U.S.C. 6301-6311]. The Act was passed as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. It authorized the establishment of a national soybean promotion, research and consumer information program. The program became effective on July 9, 1991. 

In the Checkoff program, a mandatory assessment of one-half of one percent of the net market price of soybeans is collected at the first point of sale (typically when a farmer delivers soybeans to a grain elevator). Half of the amount collected remains within the state where it is collected and is invested by a Qualified State Soybean Board [4].  The other half is forwarded to a national board that is invested by the United Soybean Board.[5]   The funds are invested to advance the marketing, production technology and research to develop new uses.  Quality biodiesel is one of the results of this programs.


  1. The Biodiesel Handbook, 2nd Edition, Eds. G. Knothe, J. Krahl,J. Van Gerpen, AOCS Press Urbana, IL, ISBN 978-1-893997-62-2.
  2. Walton, J. “The fuel possibilities of vegetable oils”,Gas Oil Power, 33,167-168, 1938.
  3. Chapter 6,  Oil Crops of The World Eds. Robbelen, G., Downey, R.K., and Ashri, A., McGraw-Hill Publ., 1989, ISBN 0-07-053081-5.
  4. Pennsylvania Soybean Board, Northwood Office Center, 2215 Forest Hills Drive, Suite 40, Harrisburg, PA 17112, phone 717-
     651-5922, fax 717-651-5926, contact@pasoybean.org
  5. USB, 16305 Swingley Ridge Road, Suite 150, Chesterfield, MO 63017, phone800-989-USBI, fax636-530-1560, info@unitedsoybean.org.

Suggested Reading

  1. The Biodiesel Handbook, 2nd Edition, Eds. G. Knothe, J. Krahl, J. Van Gerpen, AOCS Press Urbana, IL, ISBN 978-1-893997-62-2, Chapters 1 and 2.

Dr. Joseph M. Perez, Sr., is Professor Emeritus at Pennsylvania State University. His contact information can be found in our member directory.

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