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Making Biodiesel, a Technical and Practical Perspective

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Wally intro

Hi all.  First off, allow me to apologize for being so late to the party.  As I’m sure you are all familiar, Life often intrudes on the best laid plans.  Some of it good, some of it not so good, but the main reason for my delay is the birth of my son, Liam, some two months ago.  We are very happy…but VERY tired.  As I’ve begun to again experience sleep here and there I hope to contribute more regularly.

So, I should introduce myself.  My name is Wallace J. Morris II – I go by Wally.   Amongst other things I very much enjoy the outdoors (hiking, climbing, camping, etc.) and am currently 3 mountains shy of completing my second round of Adirondack 46ers.  A situation I hope to remedy by the end of this coming weekend.  I spend a fair amount of time acting in the role of professor of aerospace engineering as well.  My research is in the field of aerodynamics, specifically looking into the nature and control of boundary layers. 

Boundary layers occur whenever a flow (the wind or a stream) interacts with a solid body – a tree, a rock, your house, your car, a wind or water turbine, aircraft, or yourself.  It is where the critical aerodynamic phenomena of lift and drag occur.  On a side note the word phenomena is the scientist’s fancy word for “I dunno,” so don’t be put off by it.  Obviously, drag is what slows down your car and causes more fuel to be burned the faster you go. Clearly, we don’t like drag and would like to reduce it.  Equally obvious: lift keeps airplanes in the air.  What may not be so obvious is that lift is what ultimately allows a wind or water turbine to produce electricity.  What is even less obvious is that without drag, there would be no lift.  So we don’t want to get rid of all the drag.  But don’t worry…we can’t!  And it only takes a little.

Now hold on as I depress the clutch and completely change gears here.  I’m actually not here to talk about my Qt biodieselaerodynamics research, although I’m sure that will come up from time to time.  I’ve been asked to contribute a few words on my experience with biodiesel (BD or bio).  I’ve been making it, in my garage, for over a decade now and running BD in my family’s and friends’ diesel powered cars.  Two of the three cars have each exceeded 100,000 miles on our homebrew (225k and 188k total miles respectively) with the third around 65,000 miles on bio (225k total).  The cumulative total is somewhere between a half and three-quarters of a million miles driven on stuff I made in my garage.  When we started making it the cost was roughly 40 cents a gallon ($0.40/gallon).  Like the rest of the economy, we’ve been hit hard in that area too and have experienced a 50% inflation over the years.  That’s right, our fuel costs around 60 cents a gallon now.  I’m about to make another chemical order so that is sure to change, but I doubt it will top 75 cents a gallon.  And did I mention that the cars get 40 to 50 MPG?  They could do better, but I drive…let’s say I drive in the high drag regime, and I like to use the air conditioner in the warmer months.  In spite of this, both of our VW Passat wagons have eclipsed the 1000-miles-on-a-tank mark a number of times – mostly highway, of course.

So that’s my experience with biodiesel.  “What is the stuff?” you may be wondering.  Well the fancy talk first is that biodiesel is alcohol/catalyst transesterified _______ [vegetable] oil.  The fill-in-the-blank is for your type of veggie oil – soy, canola, palm, sun, peanut, and so on.  We will often refer to type also by the alcohol used – mentholated soy esters and ethylated canola esters are BD made with methanol and soy oil and BD made with ethanol and canola oil respectively.  One may blend biodiesel in any measure with petroleum diesel (which is very convenient if I run out of my homebrew).  We refer to these mixtures by percentage of bio and put a “B” out front.  For instance, B100 is 100% biodiesel and B33 is 33% bio and 67% petro.  Sometimes one will see a “D” out front and this indicates the blend based on petro diesel, i.e. D67 is equivalent to B33.

Ok, so that’s how we call it, but what is it?  Veggie oil is a triglyceride molecule and I’m sure you know that they’re supposed to be bad for you.  Turns out, they are a great source of energy for you car…or your diesel powered boat, generator, forklift, home heating oil system, or jet powered aircraft.  At the top right of the Wikipedia page linked above there is a figure showing the basic structure of what we will now generically call veggie oil.  This is the bulk ingredient or reagent in our reaction.  Yes, making biodiesel requires a chemical reaction.  The container for this is called, are you ready?...a reactor.  I have a biodiesel reactor in my garage.  It’s really nothing more than a giant blender, but I digress…The veggie oil molecule has a glyceride molecule at the left (kind of a blob thing) with three arms (the “tri-“ part of the name) coming off of it to the right.  These three arms are called esters – they are hydro-carbon chains.  Wait a minute?  Aren’t gasoline and other petroleum products hydro-carbon chains?  Yup, you got it.

So we have vegetable oil.  We also know we need some kind of alcohol and a catalyst.  In my case, I use methanol (MeOH) and sodium hydroxide (NaOH).  The catalyst, NaOH, breaks the bonds between the glyceride molecule and the hydro-carbon chains, the esters.  The sodium (Na-) attaches to the glyceride molecule to make glycerin – you know, soap.  The hydroxide (-OH) part of the catalyst links the alcohol (MeOH) to the esters to make hydro-carbon chains of approximately 20 carbons each.  This is biodiesel.  A vegetable oil derived fuel that has characteristics remarkably similar to petroleum oil.  However, unlike petro-diesel, it contains no heavy metals which go out your tail pipe and into the world to be breathed or eaten.  It contains no sulphur, therefore no acid rain can result.  And, it was grown, not drilled.  Meaning using bio releases carbon-dioxide that was sequestered in a plant months ago as opposed to eons ago.  Put another way, burning bioidesel is nearly, and could actually be, carbon neutral – that is to say, merely recycling the existing CO2 in the atmosphere instead of adding to it.

Alright, so it’s inexpensive, environmentally friendly, and a drop in replacement for diesel fuel, fuel oil, and jet fuel.  Then how come we aren’t using it everywhere?!  Well, I will try to expand on these points in future issues, but the quick version is: it costs so little because my labor and overhead are “free” to me, biodiesel gels (begins to solidify) at a higher temperature (~10°F) than petro diesel and there is little progress on non-petro based biodiesel anti-gels thus far, but mostly it is the gigantic difference between the supply of veggie oil (used or non-food grade virgin) and our enormous demand for energy.  The last estimates I saw stated that if every drop of waste/used fryer oil were converted to fuel it would “only” account for up to 3% of the nation’s demand.  I quote the word only because I think every bit helps and I would gladly give up my cheap supply if it meant burning less petro fuel overall.  However, it doesn’t look like I’m in any danger anytime soon.  Also, if we actually managed to conserve, to reduce our use, to become more efficient then that percentage, though small, would grow.

So you may want to hold off on running right out and getting a diesel vehicle or heating your home with BD.  I’ll expand on reason why next time.  But if you are a gung-ho enthusiast who doesn’t mind getting dirty and your time is worth the trouble, then go for it!  I’ll be happy to help along the way.

Wally is a professor at RPI during the daytime, a new day most of the night, and mountain climber on weekends he can get away. He is also operating a very small biodiesel reactor in his garage, 500,000 miles and counting... He can be reached through the Member email.

Comments on "Making Biodiesel, a Technical and Practical Perspective"

  1. OEIC default avatar Trowc510226@gmail.com January 05, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Very interesting about how much biodiesel you have made. I’ve always been interested in this but never got started. Are there still sources of oil available in the Capital Region? Do you have to ask for anything specific to get the right stuff?

  2. OEIC default avatar Wally Morris II February 09, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Ok, I lost my response once already so I’m going to break up my answer this time.

    As for how much have I made: I havent kept records.  Currently I make about 100 gallons per month.  Several years ago I used to make about twice that.  So rough figure of 150 gallons per month for 12 years works out to almost 22,000 gallons or just over two tanker trucks full.  Many years ago I had an oppurtunity to take a tanker truck of used oil from a certain snack manufacturer.  I had no where to put it.  Looking back I wish I had figured out…

    As for resaurants I’m sure there are some untapped ones out there, but new ones may be a better bet if you can get there first.

  3. OEIC default avatar Wally Morris II February 09, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I generally go in and have a friendly chat with the manager.  I let them know what I want (oil) and what I have to offer (free removal).  We then discuss the details, which will follow here, and if that is aggreeable we proceed - if not I thank them for their time.

    First up, if its not good for you its not good for your car.  This is obviosuly an exageration, but makes a good rule of thumb.  Partially Hydrogenated oil is bad.  Yes, you can fuel out of it.  Yes, it has a higher energy content.  It also gels (becomes solid) at room temperature, so its only good for summer. And the yeild is less on a volume basis. 

    I prefer canola oil first and unmodified soy next.  Also, the less used the oil is the better.

  4. OEIC default avatar Wally Morris II February 09, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I ask that the place keep the jugs the oil came in and empty the fryers back into these jugs when they change the oil in the morning after the oil has cooled all night.  Then, they can put the jugs some where accesible to me to pick up at the pre-aggreed upon time frame.  Perhaps a particular day or days of the week or month.

    Those are the basics.  Generally, the higher quality the food the better the oil.

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