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Biodiesel Fuels and Marine Engines

You, too, may soon be running your boat's engine on fatty acid methyl ester. On what?

The environmental movement and the high cost of oil are generating new energy solutions. Biodiesel-- the street name for what your chemistry professor would call fatty acid methyl ester-- may be workable for you. Whether it came directly from soybeans or corn or from discarded restaurant cooking oil or grease that was refined, these alternatives may hold the key to reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

Proponents of vegetable based biofuels point out that the plants remove carbon monoxide from the atmosphere. Congress agreed and, for a few other reasons, last year mandated a concerted biofuels program that would help keep U.S. farmland in continuous production and farmers in business.

There are some serious issues regarding ethanol for boaters who have 2- or 4-stroke outboard dinghy engines. Don’t make a habit of using gasoline that has higher than the familiar 10% ethanol. Your outboard can experience performance problems that turned up in tests. But even at 10% ratios, ethanol can attack the fuel system components such as gaskets and lines. There may be leaking, hardening and corrosion. Ethanol containing fuels can degrade the surface of fiberglass fuel tanks.

For more on biofuels and your boat, read the June, 2007 Cruising World article, “What’s New At The Fuel Dock.”

But as we all suspect, it can’t be simple. For all the promises of alternative fuels, there are costs and there are unintended consequences. Many knowledgeable people decry the use of corn and soybeans—crops that would otherwise feed humans on an increasingly crowded planet—to fuel our machines. In its April 15, 2008 issue, The New York Times printed an article titled, “Fuel Choices, Food Crises and Finger-Pointing.” They said “…a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people. Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies, even as they argue that biofuels are only one factor in the seemingly inexorable rise in food prices.

“In some countries, the higher prices are leading to riots, political instability and growing worries about feeding the poorest people. Food riots contributed to the dismissal of Haiti’s prime minister last week, and leaders in some other countries are nervously trying to calm anxious consumers.”

It may cause a crisis of conscience to some that the biofuel one put in his tank might have fed a family in a third world country. It’s been said that the corn that made the ethanol that filled an SUV tank could have fed one man for a year.

A recent accounting of the growing furor over biofuels vs. food may be read in an article from Der Spiegel Online.


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