Make Your Own BioFuel in 9 Easy Steps

For a number of decades, one of the allures of diesel fuel is that it was less expensive than regular gasoline. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that diesel fuel prices have surpassed its gasoline counterpart at the pump. One reason is that the price of diesel fuel is closely linked with that of heating oil (the only major difference is that diesel fuel contains less sulfur). Also affecting the cost difference is the introduction of Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel in the U.S. in 2006, and the logistical and manufacturing challenges results in higher prices at the pump not to mention the six-cent-higher-than-gasoline Federal tax on diesel fuel.

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But there has always been an alternative, a fuel closely resembling diesel fuel, but found manufactured from vegetable oils, waste cooking oils, animal fats, and a by-product of the paper industry called tall oil. Biofuel has been around for more than 150 years, and if it weren’t for the low production costs of gasoline in the 1920s and 30s, biofuel probably wouldn’t have been supplanted as the world’s primary source of automobile fuel, and we’d still be using it today.

And with a few common materials, you can reproduce a biofuel that can replace your reliance on diesel.

TRANSESTERIFICATION

Biodiesel in all its forms start with animal fat or vegetable oils such as corn oil, soybean oil, or peanut oil, which are tri-glycerides that are composed of glycerin and fatty acids. The addition of lye (sodium hydroxide) to the fat or oil breaks the fatty acids from the molecules glycerin backbone. Adding methanol (methyl alcohol) to the mix gives the free fatty acids something to bond to. The new molecule made of the fatty acids and methanol is called biodiesel.

The process is called transesterification, and it is a simple process when using pure ingredients, but it can get more complicated if your source materials are contaminated like if you are using old cooking oil or if there is water mixed in with the oil. When using clean ingredients, the resulting chemical reaction produces an ester called biodiesel and a by-product called glycerin. Glycerin are used in soap production, which is how biofuels were discovered.

THE HISTORY OF BIOFUEL

Around 1854, chemists E. Duffy and J. Patrick were interested in making soap from vegetable oil, distilling out the glycerin and leaving behind, what they discovered to be a volatile fuel oil. It wasn’t until Rudolph Diesel came along in 1893 when he built a compression ignition engine that ran on peanut oil. In 1898, he was granted a U.S. Patent for a diesel engine that he designed for farmers to use so that they could grow their own fuel in the form of peanuts and peanut oil.

Seven years later, in 1900, Diesel (along with the Otto company) demonstrated his first biofuel car engine at the World’s Fair in Paris and won a major award for his efforts. Diesel claimed: “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.”

The diesel engine, because of its weight was first used for stationary applications such as pumping fluids, and it wasn’t until 1923 that the first diesel truck saw production from Daimler & Benz. Ten years later, the first mass-produced biofuel car, the Citroën Rosalie, was produced. It was also the first diesel-powered passenger vehicle ever made.

George Chavanne at the University of Brussels, Belgium, was granted an official patent for the transesterification of vegetable oils in 1937, and it is regarded as the first formal production of what we know as biodiesel today and marks the beginning of the modern-day biofuel production.

PROS AND CONS OF BIOFUELS

PROS

Cost: Biofuels have the potential to be significantly less expensive than gasoline and other fossil fuels. This is particularly true as worldwide demand for oil increases, oil supplies dwindle, and more sources of biofuels become available.

Source material: Where oil is a limited resource that comes from the ground, biofuels can be manufactured from a wide range of materials including crop waste, manure, and other byproducts.

Renewability: It takes a very long time for fossil fuels to be produced, but biofuels are much more easily renewable as new crops are grown and biological materials are collected.

Security: Biofuels can be produced locally and easily, which decreases the nation’s dependence upon foreign energy.

Economic stimulation: Biofuel manufacturing plants can employ hundreds or thousands of workers, creating new jobs in rural areas.

Lower carbon emissions: When biofuels are burned, they produce significantly less carbon output, making them a safer alternative to fight air pollution.

CONS

Energy output: Biofuels have a lower energy output than traditional fuels and therefore require more to be consumed in order to produce the same energy level.

Production carbon emissions: Though the carbon footprint might be cleaner to burn, the process to produce the fuel—the machinery necessary to cultivate the crops and the plants to produce the fuel—has large carbon emissions.

High cost: To refine biofuels to more efficient energy outputs and to build the necessary manufacturing plants to increase biofuel quantities, a high initial investment will be needed.

Food prices: As needs for biofuel production increases the need for food crops such as corn increases, it could also raise prices for corn.

Food shortages: There is concern that using valuable cropland to grow fuel crops could possibly lead to food shortages.

Water use: Massive quantities of water are required for proper irrigation of biofuel crops as well as to manufacture the fuel, which could strain local and regional water resources.

BIOFUEL BLENDS

Biodiesel can be used as a pure fuel or blended with petroleum in any percentage. Named for the percentage of biodiesel present in the blend, for example, B20 is a blend of 20 percent by volume biodiesel with 80 percent by volume regular diesel. It has demonstrated significant environmental benefits with a minimum increase in cost for the consumers.

However, here’s the main thing to remember: Commercial biodiesel can be used in any modern diesel engine with no changes, as long as the ambient temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Below that, the biodiesel begins to congeal and can clog up your fuel filters. In the winter, limit your car’s intake to B20 or B5 in the winter, while in the summer you can safely use any biofuel blend.

Note that biodiesel is not the same as running your engine solely on vegetable oil or used French fry oil. That requires substantial changes to your engine and fuel injection systems.

DIY BIOFUEL

Knowing about alternative fuels, how to make them, and how to use them can be a helpful trick to have if you are ever in a situation where diesel fuel is sparse (for your truck, car, or even a generator). Made from either animal fats or vegetable based oils, biodiesel is one the easier types of alternative fuels to make due to the simple process involved and the easy availability of the main ingredients.

Before you get started making huge batches of biodiesel, thinking you’re going to barrel the stuff and become the next Rockefeller, you should make a small batch to ensure that you know what you’re doing first. This recipe for biodiesel will make about one liter of fuel.

biodiesel kit

GATHER YOUR SUPPLIES

The supplies to convert vegetable oil to a biofuel are simple and relatively inexpensive to procure.

The supplies that you’ll need for this kit are minimal, and you probably already have some of them laying around your home. Safety should be one of your main concerns when making your biodiesel. You are using chemicals, such as lye, which are highly corrosive, and they can burn and blind you. For that reason alone (not to mention we will be heating oil), eye protection and protective clothing like rubber gloves and aprons should be used. Fumes from the process itself are dangerous, so working in a well ventilated area (outside).

One liter of vegetable oil

200mL of methyl alcohol

6 grams of sodium hydroxide (lye)

Glass measuring cup

One- and two-liter bottles

Sauce pan and a heat source (stove)

Thermometer

Funnel

One quart glass jar

Kitchen scale (digital)

For the vegetable oil, you can simply buy some at the store. In the future, if you plan to product biodiesel on a larger scale, you can get used oil from a fast food place or a restaurant known for their fried foods and filter it heavily before use. Methyl alcohol is the active ingredient in antifreeze and can be found cheaply at any auto supply store. Lye is the active ingredient in heavy duty drain cleaners (it may be labeled sodium hydroxide or NaOH) and can be purchased at hardware and cleaning supply stores. You could buy a 100-percent lye drain cleaner and it would work fine.

BIODIESEL KITS

If you want to make your own biodiesel, it is a good idea to purchase a kit. Kits will have all the equipment you need as well as detailed directions on how to proceed. Many companies that sell biodiesel kits also offer books (as well as books found online) that provide very detailed information on the entire process of manufacturing your own biodiesel.

Here are two kits to consider:

Home Biodiesel Kits: homebiodieselkits.com

Biodiesel Kits Online: biodiesel-kits-online.com

Many companies that offer kits and accessories also offer support to answer any questions that you may have.

1. Place the one liter of vegetable oil in the pan and heat it on low until it reaches between 130 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Any higher than that and you will run the risk of melting your plastic mixing container.

1. Place the one liter of vegetable oil in the pan and heat it on low until it reaches between 130 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Any higher than that and you will run the risk of melting your plastic mixing container.

2. Using a candy thermometer is a good way to maintain proper temperature control as it can be suspended by the side of the pot so it measures the liquid and not the bottom of the pot.

2. Using a candy thermometer is a good way to maintain proper temperature control as it can be suspended by the side of the pot so it measures the liquid and not the bottom of the pot.

3. A digital scale that measures in grams and one that can tare weight is essential. Zero out the scale before measuring the sodium hydroxide (lye).

3. A digital scale that measures in grams and one that can tare weight is essential. Zero out the scale before measuring the sodium hydroxide (lye).

4. Thoroughly mix the 200mL of methyl alcohol with 6 grams sodium hydroxide (lye) in a glass jar. This will create a sodium methoxide mixture.

4. Thoroughly mix the 200mL of methyl alcohol with 6 grams sodium hydroxide (lye) in a glass jar. This will create a sodium methoxide mixture.

5. Once the oil reaches 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, funnel it into the two-liter plastic bottle. In our case, we used a 1.5-liter gravy strainer because it’s plastic and pours from the bottom. Note: Let the oil cool down slightly if it surpasses 140 degrees so you don’t melt the plastic.

5. Once the oil reaches 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, funnel it into the two-liter plastic bottle. In our case, we used a 1.5-liter gravy strainer because it’s plastic and pours from the bottom. Note: Let the oil cool down slightly if it surpasses 140 degrees so you don’t melt the plastic.

6. Add the methyl alcohol and lye mixture to the plastic container. Do this slowly to avoid splattering or spilling, and make sure to wear rubber safety gloves at this point.

6. Add the methyl alcohol and lye mixture to the plastic container. Do this slowly to avoid splattering or spilling, and make sure to wear rubber safety gloves at this point.

7. Secure the container’s lid and shake or stir it continuously for at least five minutes. If you are using a two-liter bottle, turn it upside down in a secure location and let it sit like this for at least two days. Over the course of those two days, you will notice that the glycerin and the biodiesel will begin to separate as visible layers in your bottle (that’s transesterification in action), with the glycerin, impurities, and debris settling to the bottom.

7. Secure the container’s lid and shake or stir it continuously for at least five minutes. If you are using a two-liter bottle, turn it upside down in a secure location and let it sit like this for at least two days. Over the course of those two days, you will notice that the glycerin and the biodiesel will begin to separate as visible layers in your bottle (that’s transesterification in action), with the glycerin, impurities, and debris settling to the bottom.

8. Shown is the separation of the glycerin (bottom) and the biofuel (top) after only an hour or so. After the two days have elapsed, the layers will have greatly increased. Open the container and pour off the biofuel that is floating on the top of the glycerin.

8. Shown is the separation of the glycerin (bottom) and the biofuel (top) after only an hour or so. After the two days have elapsed, the layers will have greatly increased. Open the container and pour off the biofuel that is floating on the top of the glycerin.

REFINING YOUR BIODIESEL

If you’ve used a vegetable oil that is full of impurities (for example, fryer oil from a restaurant), you will need to refine and filter your mixture more. A simple way to do this is with a water wash by adding a 1:1 ratio of water to your biodiesel. Be careful to add the water very gently. You should then turn the closed bottle upside down for 24 hours, the same as you did when creating the biodiesel originally.

After the 24 hours have elapsed, you will notice a separation between the dirty water on the bottom and cleaner biodiesel on top. When it has been separated, simply open the bottle slightly and let out the dirty water in the same way you let out the glycerin. You repeat this over and over again until your biodiesel no longer creates this dirty-water layer. Then leave the biodiesel sitting open for a week or so to let the remaining water evaporate. At this point, you have a batch of relatively pure biodiesel.

MAKING BIODIESEL

If you just want to experiment with making biodiesel, this will be enough to run your generator or any other compression-ignition engine for a short while. However, may be full of impurities which will cause buildup inside the engine over time. If you want a more long-term solution, you will have to get the water and other impurities out by refining. DW