The Gulf oil spill is the latest in a series of warnings that we must reduce our dependency on petroleum with an eye toward moving away from oil entirely. While “getting off oil” remains a distant goal, we can choose to halt oil expansion today. Technologies exist to improve the efficacy of biofuels and to stretch the availability of existing petroleum supplies through increased efficiency. Rather than choosing more offshore drilling, we can choose demand-side innovation to meet our current energy needs without the risks associated with further oil expansion.

Biofuel, and biodiesel in particular, can help mitigate the need for additional oil supply.  According to Emerging Markets Online, total worldwide biodiesel production alone took off from 2.2 million tons in 2002 to an estimated 11.1 million tons in 2008.  However, first generation biofuels will likely be limited to 10-20 percent of global liquid fuel consumption, largely due to constraints in feedstock and infrastructure.  Therefore, we must make the most of every gallon of biofuel.

Successfully doing so requires addressing a number of problems.  Biodiesel, for instance, presents several significant deficiencies when compared to diesel fuel.  Most significantly, biodiesel contains less energy value than petrodiesel, leading to increased fuel consumption and reduced engine power output.  Other problems include limited oxidation and storage stability, a tendency to form deposits, corrosion issues, cold flow problems and questionable stability from diverse feedstocks.  These limitations are greatly exacerbated with the increasing content of biodiesel in fuel blends, from B5 to B30 and higher.

These negative characteristics reduce biodiesel’s overall green profile for efficiency and emissions.  Yet as a green product, biodiesel can be made significantly “greener,” by improving the fuel so that it performs more like regular diesel. One way to help achieve this is through the use of already available fuel enhancing technologies.

International Fuel Technology, Inc., (IFT) for example, has developed a fuel efficiency enhancing additive that helps biodiesel blends to function similarly to diesel. It allows less biodiesel to be consumed compared to non-additized biodiesel for the same energy output.  This technology not only improves the biofuel’s environmental footprint, but reduces the amount of biodiesel needed for a given power output, expanding biofuel capacity and further offsetting oil use. Another line of IFT additives provides oxidation stability to biodiesel and its blends. This is crucial to smooth operation of biodiesel blends and for long term storage stability.

As biofuels continue to expand and become more efficient, we must also take advantage of technologies that permit us to use less oil in the first place.  The rail industry, for instance, is increasingly seeking to reduce costs and improve its environmental footprint with better fuel efficiency.  Rail offers an excellent opportunity for employing such demand-side technology, as the industry is highly centralized among regional operators and is among the more predictable forms of transportation, allowing for reliable demonstration and fuel efficiency analysis.

Rail can help us reduce the need for expanded oil supply by increasing the fuel economy of petrodiesel, which is heavily used by trains around the globe.  International Fuel Technology has developed an additive that “atomizes” the fuel injected into a train’s diesel engine combustion chamber, burning the fuel more completely and emitting less waste.  The technology achieves 3-6 percent greater fuel economy and reduces atmospheric emissions.

If a 4.5 percent diesel fuel efficiency gain were extended beyond rail to all U.S. diesel fuel consumption, we would eliminate the need for over 2.2 billion gallons of diesel every year.  When combined with other demand-side savings opportunities, the potential to reduce oil consumption is significant.

By making the most of biofuels and the petroleum we already have access to, we can reduce our need for continued oil expansion.  Technologies for demand management, improved efficiency and conservation are available and expanding.  The optimal choice for our fuel future is not to require any extra oil.  We simply have to choose.

Dr. Sergio Trindade, International Fuel Technology’s Director of Science & Technology, is a globally recognized consultant and expert in sustainable energy and alcohol fuels.  His experience within the international energy field is abundant, especially concerning alternative energies. Dr. Trindade is a Co-laureate of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  He also served as the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) for Science and Technology for five years and continues to provide consulting to the UN system, including the World Bank, and many other organizations regarding energy and environmental issues. He holds a PhD. in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a BS in Chemical Engineering from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.