Two years ago I learned that my college, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse University, started a research project to generate diesel fuel from vegetable oils and other plant products instead of from refined oil. I found the concept hard to believe, so I visited my college three weeks ago to learn firsthand how it is done. I met with Michael Keleher, chairman of the Department of Renewable Resources, and Jessica Bohn, the biodiesel project manager and research associate. If I had explored ''biodiesel'' online earlier I could have learned that the inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel, in 1893, first used peanut oil as a fuel.
Regular diesel fuel is a product of oil refining which produces gasoline, natural gas, kerosene and many other chemicals. Diesel fuel is thicker than gas but ignites in an engine cylinder when placed under high pressure without a spark plug used in the gasoline engine. Diesel fuel burns cleaner with fewer toxic emissions and produces at least 20 percent better mileage per gallon than gasoline. This makes diesel a natural for commercial transportation since money is saved on fuel consumption. One half of global transportation fuel, including automobiles, railroads, ocean ships and trucks, is used in commercial vehicles and almost all of the fuel is diesel.
Just last week, Tony Greszler, my daughter Rachel's father-in-law, whose career centered around diesel engine design and development for one American and two well-known international diesel engine manufacturers, pointed out goals of the United States government to decrease importation of foreign oil. He explained the government will try to promote the following:
Jessica Bohn, biodiesel project manager at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, pumps newly produce biodiesel fuel from the chemical reactor in the background generated from vegetable oil and rubbing alcohol.
Photo by Robert M. Ungerer
1. Making diesel and gasoline engines more fuel efficient so they produce more miles per gallon.
2. Using more diesel-powered cars since diesel yields increased fuel mileage compared to gasoline.
3. Producing biodiesel fuel from renewable sources like used vegetable oil, animal fats, farm grown soy beans and tall oil, a byproduct of the paper producing industry.
Every two weeks my college collects over 50 gallons of used vegetable oil from the Syracuse University food service. Jessica explains that the oil is mixed with 10 gallons of methyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and lye (sodium hydroxide/Drano), as a catalyst to speed the reaction, in a large cooker at 120 degrees Fahrenheit for 36 hours. After the chemical reaction finishes, biodiesel fuel rises to the surface to be removed. It is washed by bubbling water through the fuel and finally run through a filtration system like the ion exchange resin column attached to a home water softener to remove water and excess alcohol. The byproduct, glycerol, is drained off for limited commercial use. The biodiesel powers the college truck fleet and Jessica's 30-year-old Mercedes. Commonly, biodiesel is mixed with regular diesel fuel in a 20 percent concentration called B-20 diesel. Conversion of vegetable oil to biodiesel reduces the oil thickness or viscosity by a factor of eight and increases its volatility or ability to be vaporized prior to igniting in the diesel engine. Rudolf Diesel's engine ran for a short time before it clogged up and created carbon deposits in the cylinders. Today's diesel engines can run for weeks at a time with little maintenance. While burning biodiesel produces fewer toxic emissions, one emission, nitric oxide is increased; however, an exhaust pipe filter removes most of the gas.
New York state taxes gas at a higher rate than diesel but the federal government taxes diesel at a higher rate than gas. Ponder that fact when the United States government is trying to promote diesel use. Most counties in New York, including Chautauqua, charge a sales tax of 3.5 percent on diesel and gas fuel prices instead of a flat rate tax per gallon.
The city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, has converted its bus fleet to run on fish oil based biodiesel and Disneyland, in 2009, started using 98 percent biodiesel made from the park's cooking oil to power the amusement park train. Will you consider a diesel engine for your next vehicle?