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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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