Biodiesel by the Book

Biodiesel is a topic of interest to many people, as evidenced by the number of books and articles that have been written in the past few years. Biodiesel Magazine looks at a handful of materials published recently on the subject.
By Jerry W. Kram | October 16, 2007
If you type biodiesel into the search function on you will find more than 900 titles relating to the fuel in some way. The bulk of these are only tangentially related to the biodiesel industry, such as books on energy policy that mention biodiesel among other alternative fuels, reprints of news articles and even a few novels. But there is a substantial number of books published in the past few years that document the production, history and politics of biodiesel.

"Biodiesel America: How to Achieve Energy Security, Free America from Middle-east Oil Dependence and Make Money Growing Fuel"
Josh Tickell has created an impressive work that should be required reading for anyone who wants to intelligently discuss biodiesel and its role in supplying the future energy needs of the United States. Starting with how oil formed and the birth pangs of the American oil industry, Tickell deftly leads the reader through the history of how this country first became dependent on oil to fuel its mushrooming economy and the inexorable need for imported oil to keep that growth going. He takes us to the logical conclusion that we must start preparing for the day the oil runs out.

Succeeding chapters document the fascinating history of the diesel engine from Otto Diesel's tumultuous life and mysterious death to modern diesel-electric hybrid cars; a survey of the pros and cons of alternative fuels from coal-to-liquid (Fischer-Tropsch) to hydrogen to ethanol to compressed air and beyond; a primer on farm policy and its impacts on biodiesel feedstocks; a survey of the most important biodiesel feedstocks; and finally, the history, business, politics economics and future of the biodiesel industry. The book ends with a heartfelt plea for all Americans to become involved in increasing the nation's energy security by conserving energy and promoting alternatives. Tickell lists 52 ways to help achieve these goals ranging from the political (call your local radio or TV talk shows to boost alternative energy) to the personal (turn down your thermostat in the winter) to the automotive (consider buying a diesel vehicle and use biodiesel).

An attractive feature of the book is its strong documentation. The references and endnotes take up 43 pages. A 15-page glossary is helpful for anyone new to the industry and confused by technical jargon. An extensive index is a welcome addition for anyone who needs to find a particular tidbit of information quickly.

Tickell approaches his topic with obvious passion but with an even hand. While promoting the industry, he also points out biodiesel's limitations as an alternative fuel. There are simply not enough feedstocks available to produce enough biodiesel to replace more than a small fraction of fossil fuels, Tickell says. But hand in hand with other technologies such as wind and solar power, other alternative fuels such as ethanol and hydrogen, and conservation, biodiesel has an important role to play in America's energy future.

Joe Jobe, CEO of the National Biodiesel Board, summarized the book in the forward this way. "This book will help you understand how to increase your energy security, the energy security of your family, and of your community. It will also teach you how to protect yourself and your loved ones from the negative health effects of diesel exhaust. But most of all, this book offers you a way to begin benefiting from the upcoming changes in America's energy infrastructure. Not 25 years from now. Not even a decade from now. But right now."

"Biodiesel, Basics and Beyond: A Comprehensive Guide to Production and Use for the Home and Farm"
While the intended audience for William Kemp's book is people interested in homebrewing biodiesel, its encyclopedic nature will make it valuable for anyone wanting to understand the complexity of manufacturing and using biodiesel. As vice president of engineering for Powerbase Automation Systems Inc. in Ontario, Kemp understands the reasons behind all the steps commercial biodiesel manufacturers take to produce a quality product. Part of his reasoning for writing the book was because when he decided to home-brew biodiesel, the only book on the subject he could find was "riddled with errors." "Visits to home-based biodiesel producers were no better, revealing to me the disregard for issues of safety, fuel quality, waste disposal and environmental sustainability that should have been obvious to people who were professing their concern for the environment as their reason for making the fuel in the first place," he continues in the preface of the book. "Most people were unaware that there was any problem at all."

The book devotes many pages to what Kemp says are the common myths propagated by home-brew biodiesel advocates. These include myths such as the glycerin produced by the process is nontoxic (in practice, it contains toxic levels of methanol), methanol can be removed from glycerin by leaving it in the sun (Kemp tested it. Didn't work.), that biodiesel wash water could be disposed of in the sewer system (don't try telling that to the U.S. EPA or your local sewer district) among others. He especially takes aim at the claim that making biodiesel is simple, easy and safe. He writes that the purpose of his book is give people the proper tools to make quality biodiesel safely and start a small-scale biodiesel revolution. "However, I would prefer to see this happen before someone dies trying to save a few dollars with the assumption that biodiesel can be produced in their kitchen," he says. To show that it was possible to be a safe, quality small-scale biodiesel producer, Kemp engineered his own biodiesel production unit, complete with safety station, quality control lab and chemical storage areas.

Safety, fuel quality and waste disposal are Kemp's major concerns. He profiles six small-scale biodiesel producers, but notes that none of their systems can produce fuel that meets ASTM standards or address the waste stream the process produces. Kemp devotes a lengthy chapter to quality standards and provides a lesson on diesel engine technology to show why those standards are important. He describes several ASTM biodiesel testing methods and how homebrewers can perform them. He also details what can happen to engines and filters when producers try to run non-spec biodiesel in their vehicles.

Kemp also talks about trying to minimize his waste stream by finding a use for glycerin. Eventually he settles on using the glycerin for dust suppression but not before an amusing attempt to make soap from waste vegetable oil. "The semi-refined glycerin has the smell of dirty socks and french fries all rolled into one," he wrote. " no amount of soap dye would color the dark brown mass and it took approximately three or four times the amount of essential oils to mask the smell, greatly increasing the cost."

The book is comprehensive in its attempt to show every aspect of biodiesel production. It weighs in at nearly 600 pages and is lavishly illustrated with black and white photographs of the good, bad and ugly of home biodiesel production. Kemp concludes the book with a resource list to help home-brew producers find parts, supplies and services.

"Biodiesel Power: The Passion, the People, and the Politics of the Next Renewable Fuel"
Lyle Estill is nothing if not passionate, opinionated and entertaining. "Biodiesel Power" is the story of Piedmont Biodiesel, a cooperative located in North Carolina. On one level, it is a tale of how a man, his family and some friends went from making biodiesel in a blender to a thriving cooperative with nearly 500 members producing 4,000 gallons of biodiesel a day. On another level it is the story of a vision of a different biodiesel industry, an industry of small producers making B100 to serve their communities while preserving the environment.

Estill is a blogger-a person who maintains a journal on the Internet called a 'blog.' In the book, he uses entries from his journal, The Energy Blog (, to document how his thoughts and feelings about the cooperative, biodiesel and the industry have evolved over the years. Some of the entries are reflective, some provocative and most are amusing. They give the sense of "you are there" immediacy that makes many parts of the book more compelling. Estill's straightforward writing style is well-suited to his direct, head-on approach to the industry.

Estill is no fan of what he calls the "renewables establishment," which tends to include the National Biodiesel Board. He documents his interactions with the NBB and other representatives of the establishment and while he does respect some of the work they do, he is saddened that they don't share his vision of a distributed biodiesel industry. "Every little town on this continent should have a million-gallon plant and every little town should strive to meet its own fueling needs," he writes. "If we are ever going to be free of a top-down, government supported energy infrastructure that externalizes its true costs and operates in a monopolistic fashion, we need thousands of Piedmont Biofuels Industrials dotting the landscape of our economy." It should be noted that Estill uses BBI International, publisher of Biodiesel Magazine, as a specific example of the renewables establishment.

In the end, Estill doesn't want biodiesel to be a product or an industry. He sees it as a movement, something with the power to change the way people live. Despite his mixed feelings about the renewables establishment, he would like to see the NBB and backyard home-brewers working towards the same ends. "I'd like to think that everyone in biodiesel is working hard at petroleum replacement, and that's a good thing for our communities. It's good for our air quality. It's good for our farmers. It's good for our economy and it should be very good for world peace."

"Biodiesel: Growing a New Energy Economy"
Greg Pahl's book covers much the same ground as the other books listed here. He writes about the history of the diesel engine, the biodiesel production process and the pros and cons of various feedstocks. What sets his books apart from the rest is his survey of the state of the art of biodiesel, at least how it stood in 2005. The middle of the book features a country-by-country survey of biodiesel production in Europe-which Pahl considers the global leader in biodiesel. That is followed by a summary of the state of biodiesel in the United States with profiles of most of the large companies in the industry at that time.

Unfortunately, in a fast-changing industry, books such as this do not age well. While some issues that were hot topics in 2005 are still controversial, others have faded while new issues have arisen. For one thing, biodiesel production tripled in 2006, radically redefining what is considered a major player in the industry. Biodiesel is still a valuable book, but one that will soon cry out for a new, updated edition.

"2007 Cyber Guide to Biodiesel"
This sounded like a good idea. Collect the tens of thousands of documents and Web pages concerning biodiesel published by the federal government and put them in PDF format on a single CD-ROM for easy access. However, the execution of this idea leaves a lot to be desired.

One problem is just the vast quantity of data presented. The disc includes everything from scientific reports to handouts intended for school children. To find anything useful on the CD-ROM would take an excellent, intelligent search engine. However, the publishers chose to use Adobe Reader's built in indexing software, which was sluggish and not very useful.

Then there is the matter of content. There doesn't seem to have been much thought put in to organizing the content in any useful way. Every Web page that mentions biodiesel-more than 16,000 pages worth-are crammed into a single document. A search on several industry-related terms, such as methanol recovery, did not convince me that even if someone were patient enough to wait for the searches to be completed they would be rewarded with documents that would be useful to a biodiesel producer.

The "Cyber Guide to Biodiesel" might be useful to a high school student doing a report on biodiesel, but only if he or she didn't have an Internet connection. For everyone else, Google or another Internet search engine will likely give more relevant results faster.

Jerry W. Kram is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. He can be reached at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.
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