J. B. Hunt commits to algae-based fuel

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Finding alternative energy sources to put in our fuel tanks is good business for our company and our nation.” –Gary Whicker, senior vice president of engineering for trucking conglomerate J.B. Hunt Transport Services

It’s a surprise, to say the least, to see a trucking company the size of J.B. Hunt commit to burning significant amounts of algae-based biodiesel in its truck tanks. But that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

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The carrier conducted a series of successful tests using biodiesel made by SunEco Energy; a fuel comprised of 100% natural algae oil produced at SunEco’s pilot plant in Chino, California. These tests, using a 20% and 50% blend of algae oil with petroleum diesel, measured an 82% reduction in particulate emissions with no loss of power.

“Producing renewable fuel supplies from algae grown in American ponds is an intriguing new option,” noted Gary Whicker, senior vice president of engineering for J.B. Hunt, in a press statement. “Our initial experience with their algae-based biodiesel is promising, and we are excited about the opportunity to work … towards a lower cost, less carbon intensive, and more secure energy supply for our business."

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I’ve talked about the potential for algae as a vehicle fuel stock in this space before – just last year in fact – but I didn’t think we’d be seeing it put through its paces in trucking this soon. And frankly, I shouldn’t be surprised that J.B. Hunt of all carriers is forging ahead with a plan to use algae-based biodiesel in its trucks, for this is a carrier long known for doing things differently – a hallmark of its late founder, Johnnie Bryan Hunt.

Still, there’s a lot of work to be done – and by no means should algae be considered a “silver bullet” in the alternative fuel debate, at least not yet. As research firm Frost & Sullivan noted in a report earlier this year, the cost disadvantage of producing biofuels is significantly higher than the benefits achieved from their use right now – and this scenario is unlikely to change until 2015, even with the use of second generation biofuels.

“Second generation biofuels will be commercially successful only if the price of extracting biofuels is lower than or equal to the price of producing fossil fuels,” the firm noted in its report “Farming subsidies given by local governments are becoming critical as farmers choose biofuels over food crops. Countries with high biofuel consumptions, such as Sweden, are importing feedstock from countries like Brazil thereby increasing food prices. Vast areas of forest land have been erased in Malaysia by farmers wanting to make quick money by exporting feedstock to Europe.”

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Challenges related to vehicle warranties are also dampening market prospects, as OEMs cannot offer any assurances or guarantees in the event of using high biofuels content, owing to the absence of certification and standardized vehicle testing guidelines, Frost & Sullivan added.

Still, it’s a landmark moment when a billion-dollar carrier decides to commit to biofuels on this scale despite dealing with the aftershocks of a freight market collapse – one brought on by one of the worst economic recessions in recent memory. And you know if Hunt is doing this now, they see a big payoff in the future – most likely when the cost of 100% pure diesel starts to rise to significant heights again, as it will one day surely do.

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