Research Highlights

Research Highlights
Soybeans: Powering the Circular Economy

Photo: United Soybean Board

By Sarah Hill

In the agriculture industry, it’s often said that growers produce food, fiber and fuel. Soybean growers should be proud of the fact that their products are driving an entire circular economy, according to Scott Fenwick, Technical Director, Clean Fuels Alliance America. Many soybean co-products are used to produce biofuels.

In the last decade, more states have been implementing programs to supplement federal policies around low carbon biodiesel. California, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri have offered tax exemptions, retail incentives and production incentives to increase the amount of biodiesel consumed in those states. 

Biodiesel Use Increasing

Private industry is also driving the increased use of biodiesel, through companies introducing carbon reduction goals, according to Fenwick. However, it’s harder to decarbonize in markets such as aviation fuel, marine and railroad—many of the transportation types used when exporting soybeans and other soybean by-products.

“Biodiesel use is not being driven on the regulatory level,” he says. “Global trade leaders have corporate policies driven by shareholders to reduce their carbon footprint by so much in the next three decades.”

Many shipping and railroad companies are being told by their customers that using 20% biodiesel blends isn’t enough to meet their carbon reduction goals. For example, PepsiCo owns the largest private U.S. fleet, with 18,000 trucks. 

“They’re only interested in using a 100% low-carbon fuel,” Fenwick says. “Nothing else is good enough.”

Biofuel Blends for Different Engines

Thus far, studies have only been done on biodiesel blends up to 20% for certain engine types. Fenwick acknowledges that there is certainly a gap between the available data and what is needed.

“All of a sudden, there’s one driver changing the marketplace faster than engine technology and new regulations,” he says. “New emissions requirements go into effect in 2027, and some engine manufacturers are still trying to determine what technologies they’ll use to get there.”

Jet engine manufacturers are an extremely important piece of the biodiesel use puzzle, as they control whether biodiesel can be moved in which pipelines. Pipelines are the cheapest and most efficient way to move fuel across the country, and there are far more refineries along the coasts, and fuels need to be moved inland. The Northeastern U.S. has far more impact because of its dense population. 

Ethanol cannot be moved by pipeline at all because it can result in stress corrosion cracking, which causes leaks in the pipelines. Biodiesel is currently used in amounts of 50 ppm, but higher blends cannot be used for aviation fuel, because it can gel too quickly—which is also why pipelines cannot be used by both biodiesel and aviation fuels. Many pipelines that don’t carry aviation fuels do carry biodiesel.

“Sustainable aviation fuels are the way to go,” Fenwick says. “Years ago, a project evaluated a 400 ppm biodiesel in a batch of aviation fuel. There weren’t any problems, but because of the safety record in the airline industry, they’re very conservative and it remains untested.”

Published: Mar 4, 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.