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Biofuels explained Use of biomass-based diesel fuel

Biomass-based diesel biofuels are transportation fuels

Most of the large trucks, buses, and tractors in the United States and around the world have diesel engines that use diesel fuel. Diesel powered cars and light trucks are common in many countries. Most of the diesel fuel used in diesel engines is refined from crude oil and can be called petroleum diesel. Biomass-based diesel fuels are biofuels made from biomass or materials derived from biomass and include biodiesel and renewable diesel. They are both called diesel fuels because they are mostly produced for use in diesel engines, but they can also be used as distillate heating fuels. Both fuels can be used as direct substitutes for petroleum diesel and provide the same vehicle fuel economy as petroleum diesel fuel.

Biodiesel meets the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) specification ASTM D6751 and is approved for blending with petroleum diesel. Renewable diesel meets ASTM D975 specification for petroleum diesel and it does not require blending with petroleum diesel for its use. Both fuels qualify for meeting the biofuels consumption levels required by the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard program.

Most of biomass-based diesel fuel use is an additive to petroleum diesel

Biomass-based diesel fuels are most often used in blends with petroleum diesel. Pure, unblended biodiesel is referred to as B100. Pure, unblended renewable diesel is called R100. Biodiesel and petroleum diesel blends are referred to as B2, B5, or B20. Renewable diesel and petroleum diesel blends are referred to as R2, R5, or R20. The numbers represent the biofuels’ percentage shares of 2%, 5%, and 20%, respectively, in a gallon of diesel fuel.

Biomass-based diesel fuels can be used as petroleum diesel, but they have qualities that have to be considered when stored and used. Biodiesel fuels (as well as petroleum diesel fuel) are sensitive to cold weather and may require the addition of a special type of anti-freeze. Biodiesel acts like a detergent or solvent that can loosen and dissolve sediments in storage tanks, which can affect the performance of end-use equipment. B100 may cause rubber and other components to fail in older vehicles. This problem does not occur with renewable diesel.

A photograph of a bus powered by soybean oil biodiesel

A bus powered by soybean oil

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

Biodiesel accounts for the majority of U.S. biomass-based diesel fuel use

In 2019, the United States consumed about 43 million barrels (1.8 billion gallons) of biomass-based diesel fuel, nearly all as biodiesel blends with petroleum diesel. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) does not report data specifically for renewable diesel consumption. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports RFS RIN (renewable identification number) data. The RIN data for 2019 indicates that total U.S. renewable diesel consumption was about 900 million gallons.

Some local, state, and federal government agencies with fleets of school and transit buses, snowplows, garbage trucks, mail trucks, and military vehicles, use biodiesel blends, usually B20. Fueling stations that sell biodiesel blends of B20 or higher to the public are available in nearly every state. Low-level biodiesel blends such as B2 and B5 are popular fuels in the trucking industry because biodiesel has excellent lubricating properties, so the blends can benefit engine performance.

Biodiesel use has increased substantially since 2001

Biodiesel's environmental benefits, ease of use, availability of federal and state financial and other incentives, and the federal Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) Program contributed to the growth in U.S. biodiesel consumption/demand from about 10 million gallons in 2001 to about 2 billion gallons in 2016. U.S. biodiesel consumption (and imports) dropped in 2017 through 2019 mainly because of import duties (tariffs) imposed in 2017 on relatively low cost biodiesel imported from Argentina and Indonesia, which effectively removed all of those imports from U.S. supply in 2018 and 2019.

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U.S. renewable diesel production, imports, and consumption are concentrated in California

California uses nearly all of U.S. produced renewable diesel and all of imported renewable diesel mainly because of the economic benefits for its use in California under California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

Many countries produce and use biodiesel

Many countries encourage the use of biodiesel. In 2001, total world biodiesel consumption was about 0.3 billion gallons. In 2016, about 9.3 billion gallons of biodiesel were consumed in at least 56 countries, and 58% was consumed in five countries.

World biodiesel consumption, 2016
  Billion gallons Share of world total
World total 9.3
United States 2.1 22%
Brazil 1.0 10%
France 0.9 10%
Indonesia 0.8 9%
Germany 0.7 7%
All others 3.9 42%

Last updated: August 26, 2020