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USDA Clears Air with Biodiesel

By Don Comis
January 13, 2000

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2000--Buses and other diesel-burning vehicles-- including this winter's snowplows--might run cleaner if they mix soy-based biodiesel with their regular diesel fuel.

That's the message sent out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at a biodiesel fuel seminar today at a USDA research center in Beltsville, Maryland. Several of the farm's 65 tractors, trucks, a tour bus, and other vehicles that operate on "B20," a 20-percent biodiesel/80-percent diesel fuel mix, were on display.

"The program is part of a federal effort to reduce reliance on petroleum and create new markets for U.S. crops," said Floyd P. Horn, administrator of the Agricultural Research Service, USDA's chief scientific agency. "The added benefit is that crop-based diesel burns cleaner, less sooty."

Horn said that last summer, ARS began a one-year demonstration project to test the feasibility of permanently switching as many federal government vehicles as possible nationwide to alternative diesel fuels, using biodiesel from soybeans, other seed oils, or animal fat.

"One of our goals is to increase the federal government's purchases of bio-based fuel and other products by 10 percent per year over the next 5 years," Horn said. "Through today's demonstration we want to encourage the private sector and local governments to do the same."

Horn cited as an example of the spread of the concept to the private sector a recent Maryland Soybean Board grant funded by soybean farmers. The grant went to the Baltimore-Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce to test biodiesel on commuter buses in Odenton, Md., a suburb in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, where Beltsville is located.

Walter Townshend, president of the Corridor Chamber of Commerce, spoke at the seminar this morning. He said that when he learned about the ARS biodiesel demonstration, he was interested, because "air quality is an issue in this region." When Townshend learned that biodiesel would require no vehicle modifications, he was sold on the idea of testing it on a fleet of buses managed by an affiliate of the Chamber of Commerce to help employees get to work. His test will begin early this year.

Alan Weber, whose firm, MARC-IV, based in Kansas City, Mo., represents the National Biodiesel Board of Jefferson City, Mo., described an additional incentive for federal and state agencies and public utilities in large metropolitan areas. He said recent changes in the Energy Policy Act of 1992 offer credits for biodiesel fuel usage in existing vehicles, reducing the number of alternative fuel vehicles that must be purchased. Weber said future changes could also affect large municipal vehicle fleets, such as buses and public works vehicles.

Thomas A. Foglia, a chemist with the ARS Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Penn., also spoke at this morning's seminar. He gave an overview of ARS research on biodiesel and biodegradable fuel additives and lubricants made from vegetable oils, animal fats, greases, and spent restaurant oils.

People responsible for operating private, municipal and federal vehicle fleets in the Washington metropolitan area were invited to participate in the seminar.

Scientific contact: Ronald F. Korcak, Beltsville Area Associate Director, ARS Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5193, fax (301) 504- 5863,