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Biodiesel goes off-road

Thief River Falls, Minn. — ATVs are getting a ‘bio’ tryout.

Minnesota farmers have teamed up with Arctic Cat Inc. to perform the first-ever tests of a biodiesel-fueled, all-terrain vehicle.

Growers want to learn how B20 — a blend of 20-percent biodiesel and 80-percent petroleum diesel — performs in Arctic Cat’s new diesel ATV, says Waseca farmer Scott Singlestad. He chairs the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, a research sponsor. This is B20’s first test in a small diesel engine, part of a strong push to expand biodiesel use.

Arctic Cat, a $736-million public company based in Thief River Falls, Minn., makes snowmobiles and ATVs sold worldwide. The manufacturer is just completing development of a twin-cylinder diesel ATV, the first on the market.

Arctic Cat hadn’t planned to test the new quad’s performance on biodiesel, an alternative fuel made from vegetable oil or animal fat. But when AURI and the Minnesota Soybean Growers floated the biofuels idea, “they were very interested,” says Michael Sparby, AURI project director.

Arctic Cat was impressed with B20, says Ole Tweet, vice president of new product development. The blend burns cleaner than conventional diesel, producing fewer carbon dioxide emissions and lower levels of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulates. That complements Arctic Cat’s stewardship goals, Tweet says. “We’re trying to reduce the impact of our machines on the environment.”

Other pluses: biodiesel is biodegradable, and in some places, it now costs less than petroleum diesel, thanks to federal and state renewable-fuel incentives. Domestic fuels such as biodiesel also contribute to energy independence. Beyond that, Tweet says, Arctic Cat liked the idea of making an ATV that could run on a renewable fuel grown by farmers, who are some of the company’s best customers.

B20 versus diesel

Arctic Cat’s new off-road vehicle features a 700 cc twin-cylinder diesel engine with continuously-variable transmission, fully independent suspension, superior pulling capacity, and great fuel economy, Tweet says.

The diesel model is now being field tested to assess emissions, fuel consumption, durability, reliability, power and safety under a wide variety of environmental and weather conditions. The tests are also looking at how B20-fueled vehicles stack up against their petroleum-diesel counterparts.

Funding for the B20 tests was provided by the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, Minnesota Corn Growers Association, AURI, and AURI’s Center for Producer-Owned Energy.

Arctic Cat expects to have the new diesel model available this summer. It’s aimed at markets around the globe “where diesel is the fuel of choice,” Tweet says. That includes Europe, where half of passenger vehicles and most off-road vehicles use diesel. Other prospective users are the military, which relies on diesel fuel, and American farmers and ranchers, who are increasingly using B5 and B20 in their farm machinery.

More biodiesel uses

Biodiesel production in 2005 totaled 75 million gallons, a threefold increase from 2004, according to the National Biodiesel Board. Most biodiesel is being added to transportation fuel. But there is strong interest in extending biodiesel uses, says Max Norris, director of AURI’s fats and oils lab in Marshall. For example, biodiesel is being tested in commercial lawn-care equipment, the main U.S. market for small diesel engines, says Kelly Strebig, research engineer at the University of Minnesota Center for Diesel Research. There is growing interest in using biodiesel in small home generators, too, Strebig says. And in the northeast, a B5 blend is being distributed for home heating, according to the Biodiesel Board.

At the opposite end of the scale, “there’s lots of interest in using biodiesel in large electrical generators,” to cut emissions and air pollution, Strebig says. For example, several power utilities are now exploring the use of biodiesel blends in backup diesel generators, he says. The marine market is also very interested in biodiesel because the fuel is biodegradable in water, cutting the environmental risks, Strebig says. “That’s a huge market.” A single Mississippi towboat, for example, uses 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a round trip from St. Paul to St. Louis, he says. The U.S. Navy, the world’s largest user of diesel fuel, is already using B20 at several facilities.

Adding to the appeal

ATVs, by contrast, won’t ever be more than a small niche market for biodiesel fuel, acknowledges Sparby. Annual ATV sales are under one million vehicles, according to a 2005 AURI report, and three-fourths of them are sold in this country, where gasoline powered vehicles dominate. Still, Sparby says, expanding into the ATV market “would create valuable exposure” for biodiesel. And B20 is a great selling point for Arctic Cat’s new diesel-powered quad, Tweet says, one that “adds to the overall appeal.”