Organizers of an educational initiative to raise public awareness about a farm-generated alternative fuel source believe it not only would contribute to a cleaner environment but could provide a major boost to Alabama's farming economy.

That, at least, is the hope of Regional Extension Agent Mark Hall and Huntsville Fleet Manager Celina Stone who received a grant of $10,000 from the Alabama Soybean Commission to fund the initiative. The effort, titled “From Farm to Fleet,” will educate municipal leaders throughout Alabama about the environmental benefits of using biodiesel in their transportation fleets.

Huntsville Mayor Loretta Spencer and Jeff Webster, farmer and president of the Alabama Corn and Soybean Association, joined Hall and Stone to formally kick off the effort recently at Big Springs Park across from the Hilton.

Biodiesel is the name of a clean-burning alternative fuel produced from domestic renewable sources such as soybean and corn oils and chicken fat.

“In addition to the environmental benefits and reduced dependence on foreign oil, biodiesel has the potential of adding millions of dollars to Alabama's farm economy by increasing demand for oils from common Alabama products, such as soybeans, corn, canola and chicken fat,” says Hall, adding that the first successful attempt involved peanut oil.

While it contains no petroleum, biodiesel can be blended at any level with petroleum level to create a biodiesel blend. Combinations of 20-percent biodiesel and 80-percent diesel require no engine modification.

Among the farmers cheering the loudest for biodiesel are the nation's soybean producers. That's because the fuel has the potential for creating new markets for soybean oil, a product that typically is hampered by low prices year after year due to surplus stocks. Research has shown that the manufacture of 100 million gallons of biodiesel fuel would require 750 million pounds of soybean oil.

Not only is biodiesel simple to use but is non-toxic, essentially free of sulfur and aromatics. It is also biodegradeable, according to Webster.

Webster, who burns biodiesel in his own engines, says he has been pleased with the performance.

“You get a far quieter, smoother-running engine without any loss in performance,” Webster says. “It burns cleaner than 100-percent diesel and is also the safest fuel to handle and store.”

It's also a much cleaner product from the standpoint of air quality, he said.

Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to have fully completed the health effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act, according to information provided by the National Biodiesel Board. The use of biodiesel in conventional diesel engines results in substantial reductions of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter compared with conventional diesel fuel.

Interest in the product is growing.

Production of the alternative fuel rose 66 percent in 2003 and biodiesel fuel stations already are “sprouting like weeds across America,” writes Wired News reporter John Gartner.