Field to fuel tank

Missouri farmers and legislators weigh the potential environmental and economic impact of biodiesel fuel
Friday, October 31, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:08 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The first diesel engine produced in the United States roared to life in St. Louis in 1898. These early engines ran on peanut oil.

This primitive form of fuel was soon replaced by petroleum-based diesel, all but eliminating the market for vegetable oil-based fuels. More than 100 years later, the prospects for biodiesel’s re-emergence are brightening, and Missouri is at the center of the comeback.

Biodiesel's comeback

Leon Schumacher, a lead researcher in the biodiesel field at MU, has been instrumental in the rebirth of the fuel. In 1990, the Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council approached Schumacher about performing experiments to learn more about biodiesel made from soybeans.

“They were interested in proving what it was capable of doing and not doing,” said John Kleiboeker, director of field services for the Missouri Soybean Association, an organization also working for the promotion of soybean products. “They came to find out it was capable of a lot of great things,” he said.

Biodiesel basics

Biodiesel can be made from any fat or plant from which oil can be derived. In the Midwest, soybeans are most often used as a base for the fuel, but common kitchen oils such as sunflower, canola and safflower can also be converted into biodiesel. The fuel can be used on its own or in a blend with petroleum-based diesel.

Biodiesel holds promise as an environmentally positive fuel, but there are concerns about fuel production leading to increased usage of genetically engineered crops, which some feel are harmful to both human health and the environment.

The issue also has sparked debates over government attempts to promote the fuel and who will benefit if the biodiesel market takes off.

Biodiesel is the first alternative fuel to undergo EPA-commissioned testing on emissions quality and potential health effects, said Jenna Higgins, director of communications with the National Biodiesel Board. In June 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency released test results indicating that biodiesel is much cleaner-burning fuel than diesel.

Since the EPA results were released, more agencies around the country have adopted biodiesel blends for their fleets.

Local biodiesel fuel use

The Columbia Public Works Department is one of those agencies. The department’s fleet of diesel vehicles has been run on B2 — a blend of diesel fuel with 2 percent biodiesel — for more than a year, said Eric Evans, superintendent of the fleet. The department has recently upped its usage to B20 — diesel containing 20 percent biodiesel.

“We just got our first delivery of 7,000 gallons of B20,” Evans said.

High profile users of biodiesel include Lambert Airport, Fort Leonard Wood, Kansas City Power and Light, and the Missouri

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