Biodiesel test could spark a revolution


Diesel fuel made from soybeans is going to be tested in underground mines by a coalition of mining companies, labour unions, engine manufacturers, biodiesel manufacturers, researchers, and the federal government.

This could be great news, not just for miners and others working in close quarters with diesel engines, but for city dwellers along congested truck and bus routes, for farmers who can grow soybeans, and other oil-producing crops, and for everyone committed to renewable energy sources.

Conventional diesel exhaust above minimum emission thresholds is suspected of causing lung cancer. What has spurred the mine tests is a proposed lowering of the thresholds.

The coalition hopes that by mixing biodiesel fuel — as fuel from oil-producing plants is called — with regular fuel, emissions will be lowered to meet the new minimums.

Biodiesel fuel contains much more oxygen that fuel derived from crude oil, and that results in more complete combustion and lower emissions.

The person most responsible for organizing the coalition is Bruce Conard, vice-president and health science advisor of Inco Ltd. The testing will start in Inco’s Creighton mine in Sudbury. Conard holds a Ph.D in physical chemistry.

Partners in the coalition include Noranda Inc., Falconbridge Ltd., Cambior Inc., Goldcorp Inc., Barrick Gold, the Canadian Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers or America, Ortech Corp., the Center for Diesel Research at the University of Minnesota, the federal Department of Natural Resources, diesel engine manufacturers, and biodiesel manufacturers. Tests will be run over three years at a cost of $1 million a year.

The lower emission levels are being proposed by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists in its handbook on « threshold limits.’’ Conard says its recommendations are generally followed by industry and government throughout the industrialized world.

The organization is proposing a level of .15 milligrams per cubic metre, about a third below what Ontario now permits.

Conrad expects that the new standard will eventually be adopted in Ontario and, if that happens, Inco wants to be able to comply. The problem is that the proposed levels are so low that the technology does not yet exist, first of all to separate such minute quantities of diesel exhaust from other emissions — particularly the oil mists generated by drilling lubricants — and, secondly to measure them.

So new measuring tools will have to be developed, and then the effectiveness of mixing biodiesel and regular diesel fuel will have to be tested.

Biodiesel fuel is not used in Canada. It costs four to five times as much as regular diesel fuel. Some is manufactured in the United States and used to reduce pollution in beleaguered areas such as the Florida keys, and high-traffic locations in Chicago and Los Angeles.

The advantage of biodiesel is that, unlike regular diesel fuel, it contains no sulphur and no polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, both of which can cause cancer when constant in workplace air that is above threshold levels.

According to Conard, there are 2,200 diesel-powered vehicles underground in Ontario that could burn 11 million litres of biodiesel fuel if it were mixed in a 50:50 ratio with regular fuel.

It would be a niche market and, says Winthrop Watts, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Biodiesel Research, « I wouldn’t be surprised if biodiesel could develop a number of niche markets.’’

Biodiesel use is most advanced in Europe, and especially in Germany where it is competitively priced against regular diesel fuel. That, according to Wendel Goetz, manager of business development for engine technologies at Ortech Corp. in Mississauga, is because Germany places a high tax on fuels and, to reduce air pollution, no tax on biodiesel.

There are 300 species of plants from which biodiesel can be made, Goetz says. He dreams of the day when Canada will develop a long-term plan for renewable energy. But that probably won’t come before there is another energy crunch like the one that traumatized the world in the late nineteen seventies. « And it will come,’’ he adds.

Sadly, I think he’s right. But maybe, just maybe, the mining coalition will set us on a different path.

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