It may be element No. 16 on the periodic table, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed it as public enemy No. 1 in response to respiratory-related health problems.

And that declaration on No. 16, known more commonly as sulfur, has resulted in an expanded market potential for soybeans.

EPA's requirements, issued in December 2000, focused on decreasing sulfuric emissions from diesel engines. Fuel refiners have six years to lower the sulfur content of diesel fuel from the current allowable-level of 500 parts per million (ppm) to 15 ppm, a 97% reduction. Fuel produced after June 1, 2006, must meet the low-sulfur standard.

However, the refinery process that reduces sulfur also reduces lubricity — an ailment to engines that causes wear on fuel injection equipment and could result in catastrophic engine failure.

“A whole new market will exist for added lubricity components in diesel fuel,” says Jenna Higgins of the National Biodiesel Board. It's not certain yet if that lubricity agent will be added during refining or after market. Either way, soybeans are poised to corner a big chunk of that emerging market.

“Production capacity is estimated to be 200 million gallons per year right now. That could be increased to triple that number in less than 12 months,” Higgins says. “The infrastructure is there and production has already increased four-fold this year over last.”

Biodiesel is a clean-burning, zero-sulfur diesel fuel made from domestically produced, renewable fats and oils, like soybean stocks. “Since biodiesel is a fuel in and of itself, you don't risk adding too much,” says Higgins. “With some of the other additives you might get soapy emulsions and other operational problems.”

While biodiesel contains no petroleum, Higgins says it can be blended with petroleum-based diesel fuel at any point — from refining to the road — to gain the needed lubricity from lost sulfur and to reduce emissions.

Tests conducted by Stanadyne Automotive Corp., the largest diesel fuel injection equipment manufacturer in the U.S., show that as little as a 1% blend of biodiesel can improve the lubricity of diesel fuel by up to 65%.

Paul Henderson, quality management systems manager at Stanadyne, has urged the EPA to require a low blend of biodiesel in the entire U.S. diesel supply to address the lubricity concerns. He believes a 2% blend would be adequate.

“A low-blend biodiesel approach,” Henderson says, “could be used to meet multiple policy objectives, such as renewable fuels, alternative fuels, reduction of dependence on foreign oils, reduction of trade deficits, agricultural economic development and global warming.”

A federal bill is pending that would require a percentage of motor fuels sold in the U.S. be renewable. The Renewable Fuels for Energy Security Act phases in a ramp-up in the percentage of renewable fuels, including biodiesel and ethanol, contained in motor fuels. It will start with a 0.8% blend in 2002. By 2006, when the low-sulfur requirement would be in effect, the fuel blend would be at 1.5%.

Why Sulfur Must Go

Sulfur dioxide is a byproduct of burning diesel fuel that's harmful to the eyes, throat and lungs. More than 1.5 million tons of it are produced in the U.S. each year from vehicle emissions, according to the National Biodiesel Board. Sulfur dioxide can also form sulfuric acid, the primary component in acid rain.

The new EPA rule to reduce sulfuric emissions is part of the agency's stringent environmental standards on heavy-duty highway engines, similar to the standards already imposed on cars.

EPA also states that instances of respiratory problems, such as asthma and lung cancer caused by these harmful emissions, would decrease significantly in the overall population. EPA estimates an increase of $1,200-1,900 in cost for new vehicles and an increase of 4-5¢ in the cost of diesel fuel. However, EPA states the benefits outweigh the costs 16 to one.

For more information, visit www.biodiesel.org.