On the road again with Bio Willie

| July 02, 2006

Willie Nelson sings the praises of homegrown fuel.

More than a century ago, Rudolf Diesel’s new engines made their debut at the 1900 World’s Fair – powered by peanut oil, the original biodiesel. Back then, diesel engines – fueled solely on vegetable oils – got better fuel mileage than the traditional combustion engines and soon became the norm.

When oil companies took over the market in the 1920s with their cheap, low-grade petroleum diesel, engine manufacturers modified the engines to run on the newfangled fuel. A century later, as environmental concerns, dwindling sources of fossil fuels and conflicts in the Middle East contribute to spiraling costs at the fuel pump, it’s back to the future, where an old idea becomes a hot new trend.

Interest in biodiesel has exploded as its advantages become known, its distribution expands and celebrities jump on the bandwagon. Even President Bush declared biodiesel “one of our nation’s most promising alternative fuel sources” and admonished Americans who are “addicted to oil” to consider alternative fuel sources.

“I didn’t know I was addicted to oil, until the president told me so,” said Willie Nelson, a sheepish grin lighting the creased, time-worn face of the legendary country-western singer and songwriter. “Heck, I guess it’s just something else I gotta get off of,” he told the audience at the April 9 grand opening of the Earth Biofuels biodiesel production plant in Durant, Okla.

Nelson and actor Morgan Freeman toured the facility that will eventually employ 100 people and produce 10 million gallons per year of biodiesel from soybean and canola oil. “The product will then be blended with petroleum to provide a renewable source of energy that will help with emissions,” says Tommy Johnson, CEO of Earth Biofuels.

Biodiesel sales are booming across America to the point they will double this year.

Nelson, known for helping American farmers with his 20 years of Farm Aid, emphasized that biodiesel production helps farmers, reduces dependence on foreign oil and improves air quality.

Morgan Freeman put it bluntly, “This is a life and death situation for our planet.”

After the ribbon cutting, Wilson performed his hits at the Choctaw Coliseum in Durant. He wore a red bandana, black T-shirt and his trademark long braids, no longer those of a red-headed stranger but now aged a mellow gray.

But Nelson’s enthusiasm for the emerging biodiesel industry is anything but mellow, and he’s on the road again promoting the biodiesel message and his own brand of the product, a B20 blend (20 percent biodiesel with 80 percent petroleum) named BioWillie.

First Stop
If Willie Nelson is the most recognizable spokesperson for the biodiesel industry, Carl’s Corner in Hillsboro, Texas, is the unlikely epicenter of the revolution quietly sweeping the trucking nation. Carl’s Corner, the iconic truckstop an hour south of Dallas, was the first truckstop in the nation to sell BioWillie.

Carl Cornelius, the legendary and colorful owner of Carl’s Corner, has welcomed truckers, fueling their trucks and filling their plates, for more than 20 years. His newest venture into the biodiesel market with his long-time friend and poker buddy, Willie Nelson, fits right in with his history of reinventing the 1,700 acres he bought in 1979.

A visit to Carl’s Corner is a fascinating step back into another era when trucking was more like the wild wild West and truckers more like the outlaws Nelson sings about. The evolution of Carl’s Corner is documented on a wall of framed news clippings, but it’s nothing compared to hearing the story from Carl himself.

Tucked back behind the kitchen is his office, complete with a poker table and of course, Willie Nelson warbling from speakers. He tells of how it all began with the purchase of cheap land in the middle of nowhere. He wanted a place where truckers could come and have a drink, enjoy some company and get some rest before heading south to Mexico or North to Oklahoma. Undaunted by the fact that it was a dry county, Cornelius incorporated the land into a town and became its mayor, judge, police and fire chief. Then he served beer and barbeque at the grand opening of his little corner of Texas, dubbing it Carl’s Corner.

Over the years the truckstop has featured a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, strip joint, drive- through beer window, drive-in movie theater, chapel and even a masseuse. There have been stories, national TV interviews and even a song – “The Dreamer” – written about Carl’s Corner and its larger-than-life host, Cornelius.

Things were going along just fine when personal tragedy and then a fire struck.

Cornelius says he was about to throw in the towel when Nelson called and told him to hang on, don’t shut down yet. Nelson’s wife Annie came back from their home in Hawaii excited about using an alternative form of diesel fuel to power her Volkswagen Jetta. Nelson, intrigued, decided to look into it for his own buses and Mercedes.

That quickly led to the idea of marketing a soybean-based blend of diesel for truck drivers. He talked Cornelius into joining him and two other partners in the effort. The BioWillie brand was developed by Nelson and Peter Bell of Distribution Drive, a subsidiary of Earth Biofuels. Whether the deed to Carl’s Corner was lost and won again in a poker game is an oft-discussed topic. “Shoot, the deed always gets put on the table sooner or later,” says Cornelius.

What happened next was a series of events that just may have started a revolution. The swimming pool was paved over to make room for a 900-seat, state-of-the art theater inside the truckstop, where Nelson and other country singers perform. Cornelius changed out all four pumps and installed only BioWillie fuel with plans to add more lanes in the future. He recently broke ground for a biodiesel production facility on land behind the truckstop.

And Cornelius isn’t the only one to jump on the biodiesel bandwagon. Truckstops are lining up to carry biodiesel, celebrities (Daryl Hannah, Neil Young, Morgan Freeman) are turning out for ribbon cutting, and grand openings of biodiesel plants, and Motiva Enterprises and Earth Biofuels Inc. just opened a new petroleum terminal in Dallas, where pre-blended biodiesel can be loaded onto tankers.

Things are happening fast, and the rest of the industry is starting to sit up and take notice. In fact, Jenna Higgins, National Biodiesel Board spokesperson, says that in 2005, 75 million gallons of biodiesel were sold in the United States. While this represents only .02 percent of the 34 billion gallons of petroleum-based diesel sold, it’s three times more than the amount sold in 2004. She says biodiesel usage is on track to double in 2006, according to a U.S. Department of Energy forecast, and there are more than 700 locations nationwide carrying the fuel.

No longer regarded as a fad or novelty, the biodiesel movement is gaining momentum with truckers – many of whom identify with the plight of small farmers. They see the purchase of a product like BioWillie as a way to show their support for farmers and do their part to reduce foreign dependence on oil. “Truckers understand farmers and vice versa,” says Nelson. “There’s no other segment more affected by rising fuel prices.”

Truckers, for the most part, seem to agree. eTrucker.com polls found that while 67 percent of drivers surveyed have not tried biodiesel yet, 63 percent are willing to try biodiesel if it becomes readily available.
Cornelius and Nelson keep notebooks full of honest comments from truckers who have been fueling with BioWillie diesel since last summer. Almost all have been positive, although there are questions, misconceptions and concerns sprinkled throughout the pages.

Advantages
The use of biodiesel in a conventional diesel engine reduces net (over the fuel production process) CO2 emissions by 78 percent compared to diesel fuel. It’s better for the environment because it’s made from renewable resources, which also helps farmers and decreases dependence on foreign oil.

Truckers say they not only feel good about using it and helping American farmers, they get good fuel mileage and better power, including increased lubricity. The comment books at Carl’s Corner are full of such testimonies. Harold Thorton filled his truck at Carl’s Corner and said his fuel mileage went up 2.2 mpg. Ray Iddings, known by his CB handle as “Critter,” wrote: “I got 5.2 miles per gallon using regular, and now I’m getting about 7 miles to the gallon with biodiesel. My engine runs with less noise and more power.”

Bob Burkhart, a trucker and farmer in Lawrence, Mich., has been using biodiesel since his fuel supplier on the farm switched to a soy-based diesel fuel in 2000. He uses a B5 blend for both his tractors and trucks, and in the winter it was treated with additives as needed for the cold temperatures.

“We saw an immediate decrease in the black exhaust smoke, indicating a better, cleaner fuel burn,” says Burkhart, who hauls for Bulkmatic Transport of Griffith, Ind. They had no problems with gelling, waxing or fuel filter clogging either, he says. “As farmers, we liked the fact that the fuel was made from soybeans, a product we grow on about 1,600 acres. Our cost for the fuel was compatible with traditional diesel, and the increased lubricity is a huge advantage,” he says.

The lubricity factor increases the advantages of biodiesel with the upcoming changeover to ultra-low-sulfur diesel coming up. His main concern is the lack of availability, but he says there are plans for two large plants in his part of the country. “If fuel prices climb the way they are rumored to, then there may be a price advantage with biodiesel that will hasten its general availability,” Burkhart says.

Greg Greving of Chapman, Neb., owns G&G Farms and operates a trucking company that delivers construction and farm equipment. He uses B2 and agrees with Burkhart that the lubricity benefits cannot be over-emphasized. “Increased lubricity can extend engine life through the prevention of premature fuel system wear and tear,” he says. In spite of the cold weather in his part of the country, he’s had no gelling problems, even in below-zero temperatures.

Like Burkhart and Greving, Lamar Owens from Mt. Home, Ark., fuels his 10 trucks with biodiesel when it’s available and says he’s pleased with the performance. “It makes my engines run cleaner, better.”

Owens comes from a long line of farmers and now hauls cotton. He likes the idea of helping farmers and lessening dependence on foreign oil. Still, he says he’s going to stick with name brands like BioWillie because of concern with standards and possible gelling.

Disadvantages
Owens isn’t the only one worried about inconsistent standards resulting in gelling. In Minnesota, where the law requires all diesel sold in the state to contain 2 percent biodiesel, problems occurred with gelling during this year’s cold winter season. The problem came from inconsistent quality control, resulting in off-spec fuel containing glycerol, a by-product of the vegetable oil processing. The Minnesota law had to be suspended briefly but went back into effect.

Other truckers express concerns about injector seals and hoses degrading. Burkhart has not experienced any problems, but over time biodiesel will soften and degrade older fuel hoses and pump seal systems, especially when using high-percent blends. Manufacturers recommend that natural or butyl rubbers not be allowed contact with biodiesel or they will turn sticky and fall apart. Most parts made after 1994 have fully synthetic fuel lines and seals, but older models need to be monitored.

While biodiesel is an excellent solvent, first-time users need to be aware that the solvent effect will quickly clean out and release accumulated deposits on tank walls and pipes.

The current patchwork of types and available blends contributes to the difficulty in evaluating the efficacy of the product. It’s hard to compare prices, and while some blends are more expensive than regular diesel, blends like BioWillie actually cost less than the diesel average in some locations, depending on the current price of crude oil.

The future
Demand for biodiesel is fueling interest at truckstops. Jenny Love Meyer, public relations director for Love’s Travel Stops, says the company’s two Texas locations are doing well, and there have been positive trucker reviews on the product. They carry BioWillie at both locations and attribute the popularity to Nelson’s strong trucking and farming fan base.

The future is bright for this renewable, clean-burning source of fuel as its problems with availability and gelling get resolved, and the new ultra-low-sulfur diesel requirements increase interest in the lubricity properties.

Truckers say they are open to trying the product if the price is right and, in many cases, are willing to spend a little bit more. More than 45 percent of truckers polled on eTrucker.com say they think biodiesel is a stepping stone to something better and 37 percent say it is here to stay. Truckers list “sticking it to foreign oil producers,” followed by helping farmers, as their leading reason to try the fuel.

No matter what the motivation, there’s no disputing the dramatic difference in emissions with even a small percentage of biodiesel usage. And as more cities and industries begin to mandate biodiesel, more consistent production standards will eliminate the guesswork from the burgeoning biodiesel industry.

Meanwhile, Willie Nelson isn’t shy about saying he’s high on biodiesel. His support completes the circle between independent farmers, truckers and the biodiesel industry. “I relate to truckers; they are a lot like musicians, on the road, away from home,” Nelson says. “And lots of truckers I know come from farm backgrounds or do a little farming of their own. They want to feel good about their fuel consumption. They care about American farmers, and they care about the environment.

“Fueling with biodiesel is a way they can do something about it.”


What is Biodiesel?
Biodiesel is a clean-burning, renewable fuel that can be made from oil derived from soybeans or other agricultural products and blended with petroleum diesel or used alone. It’s made through a chemical process called transesterification, in which the glycerin is separated from the vegetable oil or fat. It can be formulated in any percentage.

BioWillie uses a B20 mixture of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent diesel. Biodiesel has been used by more than 500 government and fleet owners such as the city of Dallas, the U.S. Military and NASA. It is available at more than 700 pumps nationwide with more opening all the time.


What the Engine Makers Say
Engine manufactures endorse the use of biodiesel fuel but also call for more stringent quality control. They advise you to monitor the condition of your hoses and seals. Some say their research shows a slightly reduced energy content.

While these are the official engine manufacturer positions, these recommendations doesn’t necessarily mean that a higher blend voids the warranty.

“The National Biodiesel Board is working closely with all the major OEMs to create more proactive positive statements on B20, and we are starting to see some success in that area,” says spokesperson Jenna Higgins.

Caterpillar
Allows biodiesel fuels meeting ASTM D6751 or EN 14214 and allows blending up to 30 percent (the highest of all engine makers).

Cummins
Approves the use of 5 percent biodiesel.

Detroit Diesel
Recommends fuels made from rapeseed, canola oil or soyboeans and says it may be blended up to 5 percent.

Volvo and Mack
Supports B2 and B5 blends.


You Decide
Pros

  • Sustainable and clean burning

  • Raises lubricity by 60 percent, good for new ultra-low-sulfur fuels, which reduce lubricity
  • Helps domestic farmers
  • Industry growth stimulated by tax credits on production and distribution plants
  • Reduces dependence on foreign fuels
  • Reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 78 percent
  • Possible increased fuel mileage
  • Competitive price at the pump

Cons

  • Limited availability

  • Inconsistent production
  • Possible gelling in cold weather with improper handling
  • Engine warranty issues
  • Without additives, increases oxides of nitrogen, NOx emissions

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