Biodiesel’s Bright Fuel Future

By Laura Temple

The energy used to power, transport, fuel and charge our lives stimulates engagement among interested parties, especially those who are focused on sustainable energy improvement.

Historically, the U.S. has relied almost completely on fossil fuels, but attitudes are changing. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 77 percent of Americans say it’s more important for the U.S. to develop alternative energy sources than to produce more fossil fuels. Such attitudes are strongest among younger generations – those under 40.  

Biofuels, including biodiesel, represent a small percentage of the energy used in the U.S. Forward-thinking leaders in the first half of their careers who actively engage in the industry are excited by the current use and future potential for the alternative energy source. From research to production in the field and processing plants, their perspectives highlight its long-term potential.

Research Sparks Sustainable Innovation

Bernardo del CampoBernardo del Campo first learned about biodiesel in his native Uruguay.

“I saw a tractor running on biodiesel, and it blew my mind,” he says. “The relative simplicity of making biodiesel and the ability to use it in agriculture appealed to me. I was excited about the possibilities to find alternatives to petroleum, because we use too much fossil fuel.”

Del Campo wanted to learn more, so he headed to Iowa State University, which offers degrees in biofuel studies. There he earned a master’s degree in biorenewable resources and technologies, followed by a doctorate in mechanical engineering and biofuels.  

“People have so many misconceptions about biodiesel, and they need to be educated,” he says.

At Iowa State, del Campo led youth workshops that included teaching about biodiesel production for Extension outreach and education. His research and enthusiasm got him selected as founding co-chair of the National Biodiesel Board’s Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel campaign.

His entrepreneurial spirit also led him to help start Iowa State’s BioBus Organization, a student club that collected waste grease to produce biodiesel for campus buses.

That experience, in turn, led to founding Midwest Renewable Biofuels, MRBfuels.com, a company that collects and filters oil for biodiesel production. Though started in Iowa, the company now operates in seven states and recycles about 1.5 million gallons of oil per year for biodiesel feedstocks.

“We have to review the systems we use and make them more sustainable,” he says.

Currently, he is president of ARTi, ARTishar.com, a startup using biochar, a high-carbon by-product from the conversion of biomass to biofuels, to sequester carbon in soils and improve soil health.

“It all started with biodiesel,” he says.  “As an additive, biodiesel is a beautiful fuel with many benefits. It provides great sustainability components, but we need to do more. Developing fuels and products from biomass, like biochar for agriculture and filtration uses is an example of that.”

He brings a global perspective to energy use, especially since he has a farm in Uruguay.

“Biodiesel has potential for so many developing countries, and the work done in the U.S. impacts that,” del Campo says. “When the U.S. does something, the rest of the world watches, and often follows. We have to continue growing the use of biodiesel, improving the efficiency of its production and increasing the blends used, especially in the farming community where biodiesel feedstocks are produced. We need to close the loop.

“I would like to see more farmers and truckers use more biodiesel,” he continues. “We need more entrepreneurs pushing it forward to grow the industry.”

Soybeans Produce Sustainable Energy

Elliott UphoffAs a fifth-generation farmer with a trucking business, Elliott Uphoff agrees whole-heartedly with del Campo’s perspective about biodiesel’s potential.

“I drive a semi about 50,000 to 60,000 miles a year,” Uphoff explains. “That burns a lot of fuel. I fuel the truck with biofuel – B11 biodiesel in this case – made from crops grown on our farm because they burn cleaner and can even be less expensive for us to run.”

Uphoff raises soybeans and corn with his dad and retired grandpa near Shelbyville, Ill., and serves as an ISA district director.

“I’m a millennial farmer, which means a couple of things. First, I think outside the box. And second, I’m concerned about sustainability,” he says. “I remember the middle school science teacher telling us that someday we are going to run out of petroleum and not have enough. We know fossil fuels negatively impact the environment and are finite resources.”

He sees part of his job as a farmer to be an environmentalist and a local energy supplier.

“Our fields are literally full of energy,” he says. “We grow soybeans and corn very efficiently.  Using them for renewable fuel is a win for everyone – farmers, consumers and the environment.”

He notes it doesn’t get more local and sustainable than biofuels produced using crops grown in his fields. And since they burn cleaner, biofuels are a local, environmentally conscious product.

“All fuels have a carbon footprint, but with biodiesel, farmers are part of a full cycle. We use biofuels to create more energy when growing soybeans,” he explains. “If we can keep sourcing our energy from renewable resources like this, our whole society could be more sustainable.

“We want to move the needle environmentally,” he adds. “With biodiesel, we are doing the best we can with what we have.”

Industry Production Drives Progress

Elizabeth Burns-ThompsonAs manager of corporate affairs for Renewable Energy Group (REG), a biodiesel producer headquartered in Ames Iowa, Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, believes farmers like Uphoff are making a difference in many ways with biodiesel. And she’s part of that.

As an Iowa farm kid, Burns-Thompson wanted to use her affinity for grassroots outreach and political engagement to support the agriculture industry. But that’s not all.

“For me, a good job is more than just salary and benefits,” she says. “Holistically, my job is part of who I am, and I want to believe I am making a difference.”

She believes she is doing just that within the biodiesel industry.

“I am focusing on a value-added segment of the agriculture industry, working for a company and product I believe in,” Burns-Thompson says. “It is really cool to be part of helping the interesting story of biodiesel evolve and grow.”

She believes biodiesel has an amazing story to tell across a wide variety of sectors. Within ag, she says biodiesel adds value for soybeans and ethanol by creating a new market for unused oil.

“What was a by-product or waste now becomes an added value,” she explains.

Biodiesel adds worth to livestock feed by reducing the cost of soybean meal, and it adds value to livestock products because animal fats are also feedstocks.

But the story extends far beyond agriculture, offering sustainable solutions for industries from transportation to heating and from maritime shipping to aviation.

“It’s exciting to work on an issue that crosses political lines, priorities, geographies and more,” she says. “Regardless of who I talk to, I have an exciting story to tell. For example, if I talk to legislators in rural areas, I can talk about economic development and value added to agriculture. But when talking to urban-area stakeholders, I focus on environmental benefits of biodiesel like reduced emissions for better air quality. None of these benefits takes away from the others.”

Burns-Thompson believes the future is bright for biodiesel, between opportunities for market growth by increasing blends to the potential to open new markets.

“At REG, we consider ourselves ‘Fuel Forward.’ We appreciate the past, but we are forward-thinking, looking to the future,” she says. “That really describes who we are.”

biodiesels bright future

A Sustainable Cycle

Young leaders like del Campo, Uphoff and Burns-Thompson represent more than 35 percent of the workforce, per a 2018 Pew Research center survey. The age group cares about sustainability, new solutions to challenges, and making a difference. And they are.

Consider the interconnected cycle they represent:

  • Research done by scientists like del Campo can influence the efficient production of biodiesel that Burns-Thompson cultivates support for at REG.
  • REG buys feedstock from farmers like Uphoff and companies like Midwest Renewable Biofuels, started by del Campo.
  • Equipment and trucks run by farmers like Uphoff run on biodiesel from REG and other producers.
  • At ARTi, del Campo uses biochar, an REG by-product, to sequester carbon and improve soil health for farmers like Uphoff to produce more biofuel feedstocks.

While today biofuel provides just two to three percent of the U.S. energy supply, that total can grow as leaders demonstrate systems for others around the world to implement tomorrow.