Research Highlights

Research Highlights
Educating Key Audiences on the Benefits of Biomass-Based Biodiesel

Soybean oil is the largest-consumed feedstock for biomass-based biodiesel. Two to three decades ago, soybean oil was often disposed of, but today, it provides more value. Photo: Clean Fuels Alliance America

By Sarah Hill

Climate change is at the forefront of our daily lives today. You can’t read a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch the news without some mention of climate change. This scenario is driving carbon abatement strategies across multiple industries, including agriculture and energy production. The push for decarbonization requires extensive data, meaning that universities, companies, and non-profits are all conducting research in this area. Some of that data comes from research funded by the New York Corn and Soybean Growers Association.

Economic Ramifications

“We need to decarbonize to prevent some of the worst outcomes of climate change,” says Jonathan Martin, Director of Economics and Market Analysis at Clean Fuels Alliance America, an organization that has conducted research on how biomass-based diesel can contribute to decarbonizing. “Many companies are being pushed by investors or regulators to decarbonize as well.”

Some large corporations are giving directives to the shipping companies they work with to reduce their carbon footprint, which is driving a boom in biomass-based biodiesel. 

What to Do About GHG Emissions

With today’s economy, it’s important for companies and consumers to understand that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions don’t just disappear at the end of the year, according to Scott Fenwick, Technical Director, Clean Fuels Alliance America. 

“Whatever we can do to reduce carbon emissions today goes that much farther than waiting two to three years for a better solution for what’s perceived to be a higher amount of GHG reductions,” Fenwick adds. “GHG emissions are like a retirement account. Rather than waiting to put in a sizable amount, it’s even better to put in incremental amounts that will add up and have a greater impact.” 

Biomass-based diesel fuels are not viewed as significant contributors to GHG emissions, Fenwick notes. Electric vehicles don’t emit GHGs themselves, but they have their own challenges and limitations. Using other types of renewable fuels can be a greener option depending upon the local grid, according to Fenwick.

“What most people don’t understand about the promise of zero emissions from EVs is that the emissions are being shifted further upstream by generating more electricity,” Fenwick says. “Depending on the fuel composition, producing more electricity may make things worse off.”

Climate penalties, or increases in climate change, are based on carbon intensity scoring by U.S. regulators. Models are currently used to quantify the amount of carbon emissions produced by different activities, and those models vary depending on the country where they’re used, according to Martin. Updating those models requires a constant influx of new data, and research conducted by Clean Fuels Alliance America helps produce that necessary data. 

Carbon offsets or insets are not a feasible long-term option, Fenwick says, but sustainable aviation fuels may be a better choice.

“Yes, the airlines are still going to produce GHG emissions, but by planting a certain number of trees, you’re offsetting your carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions,” he says. “For example, if you’re buying a plane ticket, the airline may offer you the opportunity to contribute money toward offsetting emissions for this trip, which goes toward planting acres of more trees to offset emissions for certain flights.”

Biomass-based diesel can be especially helpful in sectors where it’s more challenging to implement electric-based energy, such as heavy-duty transport, airlines, trains or shipping.

“We need to save carbon emissions now, and biomass-based diesel is already here,” Martin says. “In order to transition to net zero emissions, it’s important to reduce the cumulative emissions of the transportation sector, while work continues to electrify the energy industry.”

Social Costs of Carbon Emissions

Calculating the social costs of carbon emissions is quite complicated, according to Fenwick. Fats, oils and greases can currently be converted into diesel, and the ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of carbon-emitting petroleum diesel. 

“On the food and fuel side, soybean oil production continues to grow, and we’ve seen large yield increases in the past 20-25 years,” says Fenwick. “There’s also been a lot of new technology created to produce even more soybean meal and oil.”

About 80% of the soybean becomes soybean meal after processing, with the rest being processed into oil. Fenwick noted that a recent study by Purdue University found that using soybean oil to create biomass-based diesel would have a negligible impact on food prices. 

There’s an incorrect perception, partially driven by food inflation, that arable acres are being diverted to growing agricultural commodities solely for the purpose of renewable fuels, and not being used for food. Soybeans are grown for both purposes. Photo: Clean Fuels Alliance America

The social value of carbon emissions varies between consumers, regions and even between regulatory government agencies, according to Fenwick. There is no set value of carbon emissions, especially among poorer economies or communities focused on environmental justice issues. 

“What it comes down to is the production technologies used and the overall cost,” Fenwick says. “There’s no silver bullet, and every type of fuel has its limitations.”

For example, existing technologies can currently produce several fuel types that are not yet economically feasible, such as e-fuels or converting carbon from the atmosphere to a liquid fuel.

“At what point do we get to where it’s economically feasible, and the social costs have a greater weight in what we do?” Fenwick asks.

Correcting Misconceptions

The New York state legislature was considering legislation favoring cellulosic diesel over biomass-based diesel. Cellulosic diesel is made from waste products, such as crop and forestry residues or non-food crops. 

In the past, there have been stigmas around using biomass-based biofuels because they require food-based oils such as vegetable oil, soybean oil, and canola oil to convert into biodiesel. Due to current food inflation, using food-based oils to produce biodiesel continues to be questioned. 

“The cellulosic diesel market is very small and difficult to transition into,” Fenwick comments.

In addition, there’s an incorrect perception that arable acres are being diverted to growing agricultural commodities solely for the purpose of renewable fuels, and not being used for food, Martin says. 

“Soybeans are grown for both purposes, not either/or. Today’s agricultural products can serve many purposes,” he says. “Soybean oil is the largest-consumed feedstock for biomass-based diesel. Twenty or 30 years ago, that soybean oil was disposed of, but today, we’re providing more value to that oil, which lowers the monetary costs for protein by making livestock feed cheaper.”

Published: Jan 2, 2024

The materials on SRIN were funded with checkoff dollars from United Soybean Board and the North Central Soybean Research Program. To find checkoff funded research related to this research highlight or to see other checkoff research projects, please visit the National Soybean Checkoff Research Database.