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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Food to burn: Oiling the wheels of commerce

Veggie MercedesNow that ethanol is being touted as a fuel source (although not a very efficient one), quite a bit of discussion has focused on the effect that the increased demand for corn will have on food prices. This has already had a very real impact in Mexico, where the price of tortillas for a typical family increased last year from 63 cents per day to as much as $1.81 per day — a staggering increase in a country where the income for half the population is $4 a day or less.

Gasoline prices have been in the news lately, as the price of crude oil climbed to a new high and motorists start considering the possibility of paying $4 a gallon to fill their gas tanks. This is something that owners of diesel-powered vehicles already have to contend with, as local fuel prices passed the $4 per gallon mark a couple of weeks ago and have now topped $4.16 in some areas.

That's about a dollar a gallon more than a five-gallon jug of soybean oil costs at Costco or Sam's Club — and many diesels will run just as happily on vegetable oil as they do on petroleum-based fuel. (Even more happily, actually, since vegetable oil provides better lubricity that dino-diesel, although at a slight reduction in power.) Vegetable oil gels at a higher temperature than petrodiesel, but if high pump prices persist past the arrival of warmer weather, switching their vehicles to a straight vegetable oil diet will be an attractive option for owners of diesel-powered vehicles.

The number of diesel-powered vehicles in the U.S. passenger-car fleet is relatively tiny, but fuel consumption figures change dramatically when trucks are taken into account. Factor in the fact that semitractors average about six miles per gallon, and all of a sudden a $1 per gallon savings in fuel cost is a very big deal.

Truckers in European countries have already discovered vegetable oil. It's illegal to use unlicensed motor fuel in many places — at least in part because doing so circumvents paying road use taxes that are collected at the pump. Even so, groceries still find plenty of empty vegetable-oil containers in their parking lots.

As long as vegetable oil is more cost-effective than diesel fuel, it's really not too hard to imagine the same thing happening here. So if you think you catch a whiff of French fries while you're cruising down the Interstate this summer, it could be because the 18-wheeler ahead of you has gone veggie.
J. Silverheels Gray, 10:31 AM

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