Biodiesel is the name for a variety of ester-based oxygenated fuels made from soybean oil or other vegetable oils or animal fats.  The concept of using vegetable oil as a fuel dates back to 1895 when Dr. Rudolf Diesel developed the first diesel engine to run on vegetable oil.

Properties of Biodiesel

Today’s diesel engines require a clean-burning, stable fuel that performs well under a variety of operating conditions. Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel that can be used directly in any existing, unmodified diesel engine. Because it has similar properties to petroleum diesel fuel, biodiesel can be blended in any ratio with petroleum diesel fuel.

The low emissions of biodiesel make it an ideal fuel for use in marine areas, national parks and forests, and heavily polluted cities. Biodiesel has many advantages as a transport fuel. For example, biodiesel can be produced from domestically grown oilseed plants such as soybeans, jatropha etc.

Key Advantages of Biodiesel

1. Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel in the US to complete EPA Tier I Health Effects Testing under section 211(b) of the Clean Air Act, which provide the most thorough inventory of environmental and human health effects attributes that current technology will allow.

2. Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel that runs in any conventional, unmodified diesel engine. It can be stored anywhere that petroleum diesel fuel is stored.

3. Biodiesel can be used alone or mixed in any ratio with petroleum diesel fuel. The most common blend is a mix of 20% biodiesel with 80% petroleum diesel, or “B20.”

4. The lifecycle production and use of biodiesel produces approximately 80% less carbon dioxide emissions, and almost 100% less sulfur dioxide. Combustion of biodiesel alone provides over a 90% reduction in total unburned hydrocarbons, and a 75-90% reduction in aromatic hydrocarbons. Biodiesel further provides significant reductions in particulates and carbon monoxide than petroleum diesel fuel. Biodiesel provides a slight increase or decrease in nitrogen oxides depending on engine family and testing procedures. Based on Ames Mutagenicity tests, biodiesel provides a 90% reduction in cancer risks.

5. Biodiesel is 11% oxygen by weight and contains no sulfur. The use of biodiesel can extend the life of diesel engines because it is more lubricating than petroleum diesel fuel, while fuel consumption, auto ignition, power output, and engine torque are relatively unaffected by biodiesel.

6. Biodiesel is safe to handle and transport because it is as biodegradable as sugar, 10 times less toxic than table salt, and has a high flashpoint of about 300 F compared to petroleum diesel fuel, which has a flash point of 125 F.

7. Biodiesel can be made from domestically produced, renewable oilseed crops such as soybeans.

8. Biodiesel is a proven fuel with over 30 million successful US road miles, and over 20 years of use in Europe.

9. When burned in a diesel engine, biodiesel replaces the exhaust odor of petroleum diesel with the pleasant smell of popcorn or french fries.

10. The Congressional Budget Office, and Department of Defense, US Department of Agriculture, and others have determined that biodiesel is the low cost alternative fuel option for fleets to meet requirements of the Energy Policy Act.

Production of Biodiesel

The production of biodiesel, or alkyl esters, is well known. There are three basic routes to ester production from oils and fats:

Base catalyzed transesterification of the oil with alcohol.

Direct acid catalyzed esterification of the oil with methanol.

Conversion of the oil to fatty acids, and then to Alkyl esters with acid catalysis.

The majority of the alkyl esters produced today are done with the base catalyzed reaction because it is the most economic for several reasons:

Low temperature (150 F) and pressure (20 psi) processing.

High conversion (98%) with minimal side reactions and reaction time.

Direct conversion to methyl ester with no intermediate steps.

Exotic materials of construction are not necessary.

The general process is depicted below. A fat or oil is reacted with an alcohol, like methanol, in the presence of a catalyst to produce glycerine and methyl esters or biodiesel. The methanol is charged in excess to assist in quick conversion and recovered for reuse. The catalyst is usually sodium or potassium hydroxide which has already been mixed with the methanol.

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