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May 9, 2012 Vol. 8, No. 10

Bet you didn’t celebrate National Biodiesel Day, did you? Yeah, I missed it too. March 18th if you were wondering, and in the U.S. only, of course. If we had a similar Canadian fuel-appreciation day, the only possible choice would be paying homage to Tim Horton’s coffee. Not my own fave, I have to say, but clearly the fuel of choice for a lot of Canucks.

But that actually is a significant date, levity aside, namely Rudolph Diesel’s birthday, which probably justifies the hoisting of a solid German brew instead of coffee, given how much we owe him. Born in 1858, the poor bugger expired in 1913 after apparently falling — or was he pushed? — into the English Channel while travelling by boat from France to Jolly Old. Conspiracy theorists figure the French did it but I suspect they were all stuffing their little Gallic faces with croissants at the time.

In any case, before he met his maker Rudolf built the first diesel engine in 1897 and installed the first one commercially in 1906, a single-cylinder job turning a quick 180 rpm and producing 12 hp in the process (picture below). A stationary engine, it helped produce 110-volt electricity in a Danish sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers. The beast was in service until 1936.

I mention all this, almost two months after the blessed day, because I’ve spent much of the last week delving even further into the realm of biodiesel fuel than I’ve already done over the last few years. And of course I came across the Rudolf Diesel connection because the biodiesel industry claims him as its own. His ground-breaking engine ran on peanut oil, after all, and folks at the U.S. National Biodiesel Board (NBB) are given to loud praise of his foresight.

In a 1912 speech, the NBB reports that Diesel said, “…the use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today, but such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time.”

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to

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