America's heavy equipment industry is taking a hard look at biodiesel fuel — and for good reasons. Over the next decade, the federal government will greatly reduce the amount of sulfur allowed in diesel fuel. Meanwhile, the equipment industry wants its engines ready for whatever fuels or formulations are introduced to meet those requirements.

Biodiesel looks as though it will be one part of this shift.

All petroleum-based diesels contain sulfur, and off-road equipment can legally run diesel with up to 5,000 ppm of sulfur — 10 times that allowed for on-road diesel. This looser standard, though, will evaporate in the next five years. The government may require all diesel fuel to carry no more than 500 ppm, regardless of where it's used.

Toward the end of the decade, the allowable sulfur content will drop again, perhaps to as little as 15 ppm.

It will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet this two-phase change without some reliance on biodiesel.

Biodiesel fits, in part, because it offers good lubricating properties that are lacking in other alternate fuels or in highly refined diesel. As sulfur levels drop, so does lubricity. Biodiesel also is so similar to diesel fuel, there's no conversion expense.

From a production standpoint, if just 1% biodiesel were blended with highway diesel fuel pool, over 300 million gallons of biodiesel would be needed, shows a recent Equipment Manufacturers Institute (EMI) report.

That amount, the report adds, would require oil from 195 million bushels of soybeans, close to Ohio's 2000 soybean crop of 186 million.

“Biodiesel is in a very good position (to capitalize) as conditions begin to favor it,” notes Max Norris with Minnesota's Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), a non-profit entity. Set up by the Minnesota legislature, AURI works with private industry to develop new markets for the state's crops.

“There are no big questions left to answer, and a good deal of confidence exists about how to use it and where it fits,” Norris says. “According to the National Biodiesel Board, 45 million miles of on-road testing of biodiesel have occurred without incident.”

The main thing holding back wider use of biodiesel now is its cost. EMI estimates that an 80/20 blend of petro and soy-based biodiesel costs 20-40¢/gallon more than straight #2 diesel.

“Likewise, a 98/2 blend would increase the cost 2-4¢/gallon more than straight #2 petro diesel,” says Norris. “We all say we're for a cleaner environment until we pull out our billfolds.”

One new development adds to the optimism about biodiesel — a push for lowered reliance on foreign oil.

“More than any other event, the Sept. 11 attacks force us to consider foreign energy versus the homegrown kind,” says Norris. “There are some intangibles with biodiesel, and one of those is the security we gain in being more self reliant.”

Congressmen from key farm states are sponsoring biodiesel legislation that could include tax credits for buying biodiesel.