If the fumes from a passing boat smell more like french fries than diesel fuel, credit the versatile, sandy-brown soybean.
In the past couple of weeks, the bean has made its way into the tanks of dozens of Maryland diesel-powered boats in the form of Soydiesel, an alternative fuel touted as environmentally safe, efficient and aesthetically pleasing.
In hopes of developing a market for Soydiesel, the Maryland Soybean Board gave away 1,000 gallons of the fuel to boaters last weekend.
Steve Elias, a Prospect Bay resident fueling his 36-foot trawler at Piney Narrows Yacht Haven in Chester on Saturday, was pleased.
"I've been following this stuff for two years now," said Elias, who filled a 144-gallon tank with a blend of petroleum-based diesel fuel and Soydiesel. "Anything I think is good for the bay, I'm all for it.
Biodiesel -- a generic term for fuels made from oils and fats and renewable sources -- is nontoxic and biodegradable, said Randall von Wedel, founder of CytoCulture Environmental Biotechnology in Point Richmond, Calif., the sole provider of biodiesel in the San Francisco Bay area for 2 1/2 years.
"The San Francisco Bay area is an environmentally sensitive area, as is the Chesapeake," von Wedel said.
The nonflammable soybean fuel is popular because it helps clean boat engines, fuel lines, pumps and tanks, von Wedel said. It also significantly reduces harmful emissions, is less toxic than salt and breaks down as easily as common sugar, he said.
The fuel, which is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, helps engines run more smoothly and gives users the same level of performance as petroleum diesel, he said.
Soydiesel, the most commonly available biodiesel, "is for soybean growers as ethanol is for corn growers," said Anthony Evans, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "It's a way to get into the energy field, and they're pushing this stuff like mad. I think if someone turns the oil spigot off overseas, it could really take off."
The fuel gained recognition in 1992 when an Iowa paramedic traveled around the world in a 24-foot rescue boat fueled by 100 percent soy-based biodiesel.
For three years, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been using Soydiesel in its fleet of boats to teach students about alternative fuels. If more Marylanders embrace the fuel, Soydiesel pumps could be available next year at eight bay marinas owned by Coastal Properties Management, which sponsored the promotional program at Piney Point and Mears Yacht Haven in Oxford over the past two weeks.
The biggest obstacle could come down to simple issues such as cost and availability. Leery boat owners say not enough is known about the fuel, which is known to act as a solvent in high concentrations when it reacts with natural rubbers and some synthetic compounds.
The price, ranging from $2 to $6 a gallon, could be a major deterrent to people such as Dudley Sparks, a commercial waterman from Queenstown who pays $1 a gallon for petroleum-based diesel.
"Everybody wants to help the environment," said Sparks, who picked up six gallons of Soydiesel for his 40-foot boat. "But, being commercial, you've got to live by the bottom line. When the price becomes more competitive, I think a lot more of us will start using it."
Pub Date: 8/27/96