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The Promise Of Biodiesel


Volvo Trucks recently approved biodiesel (hydrogenated vegetable oils, or HVO) for use in their Euro 5 engines. They hope to approve the fuel for other engines in the future, as they move to a more eco-friendly operation.

HVO is another low-carbon alternative fuel. But, unlike other alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas or ethanol (or all-electric vehicles), HVO does not require a specially designed engine. Any diesel engine can in principle, run equally well on biodiesel, and the two types of fuel can be mixed freely. That means that switching over to biodiesel does not require building a new fleet of trucks—and a truck that normally runs on biodiesel can be refueled with traditional diesel.

But what exactly is biodiesel, and why is it so important?

Biodiesel is either vegetable or animal oil (often waste from the food industry) that has been processed to make its consistency similar to that of traditional diesel. The term “veggie diesel” could describe biodiesel, but usually refers to unprocessed oils that can be used as fuel in a modified engine.

Burning biodiesel does release carbon dioxide, just as traditional fuels do (though usually with less soot, making HVO both cleaner and more efficient). Yet, the important thing to note is the carbon in these fuels was only taken out of the atmosphere by plants a few years ago, and if it were not burned in its plant stage, eventually bacteria would eat it and send the carbon back into the air anyway (probably as methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas). That’s very different than the situation with petroleum products, carbon that was sequestered many millions of years ago and would have stayed that way if not extracted and used.

In practice, creating biodiesel usually involves machines that use traditional fuels, but its total carbon footprint is about a fifth that of ordinary diesel.

When it comes to a fleet of vehicles, there are other ways to reduce a fleet’s carbon footprint. By incorporating a GPS tracking system, fleet managers can monitor each vehicle’s idle time and better educate their drivers about when to turn engines off. GPS tracking solutions also offer two-way messaging and mapping features that allow dispatch to better route jobs.  

The difficulty with biodiesel is that there isn’t very much of it available at the moment because the demand isn’t very high yet. Although Volvo is encouraging trucking fleets to use biodiesel preferentially, just changing a vehicle’s fuel type is not the only manner to reduce an entire fleet’s carbon footprint.

A comprehensive solution that incorporates GPS tracking can offer total fuel efficiency regardless of fuel type. 

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