Hi all – I’ve been getting a lot of new questions about biodiesel lately so I thought the following would be helpful. It’s a web chat I just did with a certain unnamed government entity. (We removed any personal references so it’s just Q & A). Enjoy! Josh

QUESTION: What are the best countries for biodiesel?
Josh Tickell: Currently Malaysia and Brazil offer the highest potential for growth. Malaysia is poised for a large palm oil market, Brazil for soybeans.

QUESTION: Are the negatives overstated for biodiesel? Clear-cutting, soil erosion, etc.?
Josh Tickell: To some degree, yes. These are the same negatives associated with any monocrop agricultural system. To grow large amounts of biodiesel crops will require more of what we do now in agriculture. Thus, there is potential for more clear-cutting (in Brazil and Malaysia), soil erosion, letting go of heirloom seeds and so forth. This conversation leads into the question of what the future of biodiesel is - which I believe will be in the cultivation algae in deserts.

QUESTION: What crops can you use for biodiesel?
Josh Tickell: Any oilseed crop. This includes over 1,100 species. Included are soybeans, sunflower, canola, mustard (there is a big push for mustard from US researchers), palm, coconut, safflower, hemp, jatropha caucus. Also animal fat can be used, as well as used cooking oil from restaurants.

QUESTION: Thanks for this chat Mr. Tickell! How is your documentary going?
Josh Tickell: Thank you for asking. It is very close to being done in terms of the creative editing and script. Next phase will be cleaning up the footage, the sound and preparing the final film print. God willing, we may premiere as early as September this year. We have secured interest from major film festivals and major distributors so we are very hopeful for a 200-1000 screen release in theaters during the election campaign in '08

QUESTION: Is there enough land in the world that can be converted to crops to produce enough biodiesel to fuel our transportation needs?
Josh Tickell: Yes and no. Let me explain. No using current cropping techniques. On the hopeful side in the US, using fallow and set aside lands and converting some of our export crop land, we could maybe grow 25% of our current 80 billion gallons of diesel fuel. The US is in a particularly good position. Most other countries fall in the 5-15% range. Now, let's take a brief look at how much land is required to grow fuel. Currently, we can get 50 gallons (soybean) to 200 gallons (mustard multicrop) per acre per year. That's not much fuel, but it has a better energy balance than petroleum. If we look at algae, which looks like the breakthrough crop for biodiesel, we can grow upwards of 1,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year. Using that technology, the US can grow all 4-5 quadrillion btu's of fuel in about 10% of the Sonoran desert. This opens up fuel production to the desert nations in the Middle East, China, Africa and Australia.

QUESTION: What are the best feed stocks for biodiesel? Can we make biodiesel from wood chips?
Josh Tickell: Feedstock choice really should depend on location in the world. For the US, we should look toward canola and mustard (similar latitudes = similar crops). For Malaysia and Asia, the feedstock of choice would be palm and coconut. Africa and India need crops that hold the soil like jatropha bushes. Again, this is using current state-of-the-art options.

QUESTION: At what oil price does biodiesel become economically viable?
Josh Tickell: Depends on how you look at the economics. If you're just looking at current markets, you need to be able to produce biodiesel for between 30%-50% of retail value of fuel. That game, however, is flawed. The only way for biofuels to become economically viable is that they be given all of the same considerations and subsidies as conventional petroleum. In this scenario, biodiesel is actually about 50% of the cost of petroleum.

QUESTION: Are you afraid that government favoring ethanol from corn will lock in that particular energy source, even if it is not the best one?
Josh Tickell: I think all energies are transitional in nature. We need to look at energy as an expression of the needs of society. As our energy needs increase, so should our ability to produce. Logically, ethanol from corn is technology developed largely by Henry Ford in the early 1900's. Here's my hopeful perspective: we endorse ethanol from corn. We can't grow enough corn fast enough. That prompts research and development into cellulosic ethanol production. Production plants of ethanol convert to this new technology. We produce via cellulosic technology. More ethanol becomes is available.

QUESTION: What is the estimated market demand for Biodiesel in USA both in volume terms and Value terms.
How is the demand expected to shape up in the next three-five years?
What are the US government initiatives to promote the growth of the Biodiesel industry?
Josh Tickell: Volume currently is between 75-100 million gallons. Every gallon produced is consumed so demand is somewhat inelastic. The value of the industry is still very, very small - less than half a billion dollars. Three to five year growth is expected to be exponential. Within half a decade we could easily hit half a billion gallons of biodiesel production in the US. We currently have a one penny per percentage tax rebate for biodiesel. 1% biodiesel in 99% diesel will yield a 1 penny per gallon tax rebate. This is helpful, but is not comparable to the overall support the petroleum industry receives via land grants, protection, subsidies, law preferences, and environmental exemptions.

QUESTION: Thank you for taking our questions.
I am very impressed with your research on biodiesel. Have you been getting more calls about biodiesel since the American gasoline prices are going so high?
Josh Tickell: You're welcome. Yes. The interest is proportional to the price of gasoline. ;-)

QUESTION: Can you buy a biodiesel car from a company yet or do you have to make them yourself?
Josh Tickell: Any diesel vehicle or engine can run on biodiesel. No modifications are necessary. For example, I have not used gasoline or diesel fuel for 10 years. I currently drive a TDI (turbo direct injection) diesel 2002 VW Golf. No modifications were needed to run the car on 100% biodiesel. AND... you can blend biodiesel and diesel fuel in any ratio with one another.

QUESTION: Do most fans of biodiesel seem to be environmentalists or is it becoming more mainstream in the US now?
Josh Tickell: It began with environmentalists and farmers. Now we have an interesting mix of the former business people, ex-government hawks, national security proponents and celebrities.

QUESTION: I read the article on your site that Rudolf Diesel made his engine to run on plant oils. Why did it change to polluting petro?
Josh Tickell: Great question. Rudolf Diesel's body was found floating in the English Channel before he completed the licensing of his engine around the world. His vision was left incomplete. With the onset of WWI and then WWII, petroleum was the fuel of choice. It was fast, cheap and easy. The Allies won not so much because of their superior military might but because they had continuous supplies of fuel. Vegetable oil as a fuel was almost forgotten.

QUESTION: You mentioned Brazil as a growth area for biodiesel. This to my mind implies that more deforestation may take place there to serve this industry. How do you respond to this? And also, what is the take of "environmental community" on biodiesel?
Josh Tickell: Brazil finds itself in a difficult position. First, it has used agriculture to become independent of foreign oil imports. Now it has a super strong agricultural backbone. Others (US and Europe) are importing soybeans from Brazil and they may import finished product (vegetable oil or biodiesel as well as ethanol). Brazil will have to be very careful about managing its forest resources. The temptation to clearcut for foreign capital will be extreme. Let's hope they put as much money into forward thinking research and development today as they did in the 1970s when they created their biofuel program.

QUESTION: Are biodiesel cars workable? Can you fill up like a petro station or do you have to take your own fuel?
Josh Tickell: The cars are just diesel cars. (See previous question and answer). The filling up of the cars will depend on where you are in the world and what is available to you. In the US, we now have 600 fuel stations that sell biodiesel (a small percentage of the 140,000 gas stations in the country). In Germany there are 1800 fuel stations that sell biodiesel. If you live somewhere that there are no pumps, then yes, you will have to make your own biodiesel and carry it in fuel containers as we began doing in the US in the early 1990's. (Note the fuel is not flammable, so it is safe to carry.)

QUESTION: Is there pollution with biodiesel?
Josh Tickell: Yes. I will answer this question in two parts - first all the pollutants EXCEPT CO2 then - I will answer the CO2 issue in the next question. Biodiesel reduces the pollution found in diesel exhaust. We see a 60-70% reduction in visible soot, a 60% reduction in Carbon MONOXIDE, a 75% reduction in cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (average), a 99% reduction in SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide), and no net change in NOX (Oxides of Nitrogen). Overall, biodiesel reduces smog forming gasses by 50%.

QUESTION: Does using biodiesel in place of gas help combat climate change?
Josh Tickell: Yes. At the moment, biodiesel produced in the US using conventional cropping methods (including the use of petroleum fertilizers) reduces CO2 emissions by 78%. That's net CO2reduction. Meaning, biodiesel still produces CO2 at the tailpipe. But in the "life cycle" of the fuel, the crops grown to produce the fuel will consume 78% of the CO2. By producing biodiesel more carefully, we can get the reduction down to 100%. In Europe, they have successfully grown biodiesel where CO2 is being fixed into soil and the reduction is 100%.

QUESTION: Will biodiesel work for home heating too?
Josh Tickell: Yes. Minor modifications may be needed to the furnaces. And the fuel tanks that held the old heating oil either have to be steam cleaned or replaced. For home heating oil is notoriously dirty and gunky.

QUESTION: I like the Q & A about Brazil and soybeans. On a related topic...isn't there a shortage of corn in Mexico because of the country growing crops for ethanol?
Josh Tickell: Good question. I think this is a perspective question - it depends on how you view what is the "cause" and what is the "effect". In a big scheme perspective, the cause of Mexico not having corn is that they don't grow much corn there anymore. They are a net importer of corn. If the US begins to lower its exports of corn and other crops (as is very likely with biofuels) there will be trade disruptions. Again, this is where we need very strong government guidance (in my humble opinion). Markets left to their own devices will make quick shifts in where commodity crops go. If we are going to shift more agriculture to domestic consumption, I believe there is some inherent moral obligation to ease foreign nations off of our corn, rice and other export crops rather than just ripping the bottom out of the market and letting all fare for themselves. Keep in mind, farmers in the US dislike the export market because of its inherent variability. A home grown crop is often better suited to a biofuels market. The variability in fuel price is generally an upward trend. As farmers bet their futures based on markets, the safer bet as time goes on will be to sell into a domestic fuels market - that goes for the US and other countries. The only exception is countries that have saturated their own fuels market with biofuels (maybe only Brazil has done this). Also, since this is such a "hot" topic, I recommend further reading. The following article by Michael Pollan, author of "The Botany of Desire," is very insightful in building the background of Mexico's corn dilemma: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2004/04/26_corn.shtml