This experimental study examines the effect on performance and emission outputs of a compression ignition engine operating on biodiesels of varying carbon chain length and the degree of unsaturation. A well-instrumented, heavy-duty, multi-cylinder, common-rail, turbo-charged diesel engine was used to ensure that the results contribute in a realistic way to the ongoing debate about the impact of biofuels. Comparative measurements are reported for engine performance as well as the emissions of NOx, particle number and size distribution, and the concentration of the reactive oxygen species (which provide a measure of the toxicity of emitted particles).It is shown that the biodiesels used in this study produce lower mean effective pressure, somewhat proportionally with their lower calorific values; however, the molecular structure has been shown to have little impact on the performance of the engine. The peak in-cylinder pressure is lower for the biodiesels that produce a smaller number of emitted particles, compared to fossil diesel, but the concentration of the reactive oxygen species is significantly higher because of oxygen in the fuels.The differences in the physicochemical properties amongst the biofuels and the fossil diesel significantly affect the engine combustion and emission characteristics. Saturated short chain length fatty acid methyl esters are found to enhance combustion efficiency, reduce NOx and particle number concentration, but results in high levels of fuel consumption.