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Commercial availability limiting adoption of biodiesel in construction

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by Saul Chernos

With a cast that includes green slime and assorted fats and oils, biofuels would seem perfect low-budget, B-level sci-fi movie material.

Green Technology

With a cast that includes green slime and assorted fats and oils, biofuels would seem perfect low-budget, B-level sci-fi movie material.

However, with petroleum-based fuel products increasing in cost and scarcity and adding to already-critical greenhouse gas levels, fiction is morphing into fact as relatively eco-friendly alternatives begin to power fleet vehicles and heavy construction machinery.

These are relatively early days for biofuels. “It’s been slower to catch on in Canada than in other parts of the world,” says Tanya McDonald, a research scientist specializes in bioenergy and environmental microbiology at the Olds College School of Innovation north of Calgary.

Government incentives such as the Alberta Bioenergy Producer Credit Program and the Ontario Ethanol Growth Fund offer financial assistance, and standards are already in place at the federal level and in several provinces, including Ontario and British Columbia.

Still, production and availability continue to lag. Alberta has just one commercial biodiesel plant, though another is slated to come online this summer. And, while users can buy blended biodiesel in bulk for fleets, McDonald says the province has just one retail outlet — in Turner Valley south of Calgary.

As well, McDonald says, most engines aren’t designed to run on pure biofuel, and biofuels tend to crystalize in extreme cold. So, while pure biofuel would be ideal environmentally, blends are what we’ll use for the foreseeable future.

McDonald says engine manufacturers are starting to show support. “Caterpillar and Cummins are looking to increase their allowable percentages of biodiesel in their engines, and some are approved for 20 percent or even as much as 30 percent,” she says.

Engines do not generally require modifications to handle biofuel. However, biodiesel can break down natural rubber and some other materials, so components within an engine’s fuel delivery system need to be synthetic. This is generally now the case with newer systems, McDonald says.

Biodiesel also contains properties that act like cleaning agents, removing deposits left from petroleum-based diesel. “You may need to change your fuel filter a little more often in the beginning, but using biodiesel should extend the life of your engine,” McDonald says.

Bill Ferreira, government relations and public affairs director with the Canadian Construction Association, says commercial availability will dictate adoption.

“We don’t drive technology, we’re users of technology, and this applies to fuels,” Ferreira said. “It’s a question of how quickly it comes to market.”

Rob Bradford, executive director of the Ontario Road Builders’ Association, says he expects interest in biofuels to rise in tandem with environmental concerns.

“I don’t know which direction it will go, whether it will be biofuels or better-engineered equipment that puts out reduced emissions. But I do think biofuels or some form of reducing emissions will eventually be pretty standard.”

Bradford says cost and efficiency are key. “If it was more expensive than regular fuel, there would obviously have to be some sort of requirement to use it because it’s very unlikely in a low-bid environment that a contractor would jump out front and take on greater costs.”

Bill Waugh, Lethbridge, Alta. branch manager for Cummins Western Canada says biodiesel has clear advantages over petro-diesel in terms of engine lubrication. He adds, however, that users should do their homework before making the switch.

Engines manufactured after 2002 tend to withstand corrosion and other damage that has affected earlier engines, whereas older engines should not be run on concentrations greater than two to five percent biodiesel.

“Biodiesel is very easy to make, but biodiesel that’s of high quality and high consistency is not easy to make,” Waugh says. “The guy with the bathtub in his barn making biodiesel is not recommended for somebody who wants longevity out of their engine.”

Waugh recommends buying from suppliers who follow ASTM International (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards and are BQ-9000-certified.

With production rolling out slowly, research continues apace. Prof. David Boocock, professor emeritus of chemical engineering and applied chemistry with the University of Toronto, says challenges include finding materials that can be grown and processed using minimal energy and agricultural land.

One potential source that has attracted significant scientific attention is algae. “You don’t need to plant crops, sow seeds, look after it and harvest it,” Boocock says, explaining that some researchers consider it the “holy grail” of biofuels.

“Theoretically, you could grow these small organisms in a flow-through reactor using sunlight and harvest the stuff at the far end,” Boocock says.

“The problem is getting the oil out of the algae. If we can figure out how to do this cheaply, and not use more energy than we’re going to get out of it, then it has a big future.”

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