Biodiesel as a transportation fuel

A bus powered by soybean oil
A photograph of a bus powered by soybean oil biodiesel

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

Most of the trucks, buses, and tractors in the United States use diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is a nonrenewable fuel made from petroleum. Biodiesel is a renewable fuel that is made from vegetable oils, grease, and animal fats. Using biodiesel fuel produces less pollution than using petroleum diesel fuel. Any vehicle that operates on diesel fuel can use biodiesel.

Biodiesel fuel has chemical characteristics similar to petroleum-based diesel, so it can be used as a direct substitute for diesel fuel. Biodiesel fuel can also be blended with petroleum diesel in any percentage without reducing vehicle fuel economy.

Biodiesel blends

Any diesel engine can use biodiesel at blend levels of 5% by volume (B5) or lower. A blend of 20% biodiesel with 80% petroleum diesel is known as B20. Some federal and state government fleets, such as school and transit buses, snowplows, garbage trucks, mail trucks, and military vehicles, use biodiesel blends of B20 and higher. Public fueling stations that sell biodiesel blends 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.

Pure biodiesel (B100) and biodiesel blends (as well as petroleum-based diesel fuel) are sensitive to cold weather and may require the addition of a special type of anti-freeze. Biodiesel acts like a detergent additive, loosening and dissolving sediments in storage tanks. Because biodiesel is a solvent, B100 may cause rubber and other components to fail in older vehicles. This problem does not occur with biodiesel blends.

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) contributed to the growth in U.S. biodiesel consumption since 2001. Biodiesel consumption grew from about 10 million gallons in 2001 to about 2 billion gallons in 2017.

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%