How vegetable oil could solve our energy problems

July 14, 2005|By Nicholas AuYeung and Daniel Buccino

AS AMERICA'S appetite for power increases at four times the rate of energy production, and as expensive and risky "alternative" energy sources such as nuclear power, fuel cell technology and more oil drilling continue to be debated, there is a true alternative already in the pipeline. Yet it is relatively unknown and underfunded.

One of the simplest ways to combat the looming energy crisis is not yet in hybrids or electric cars or even the power of the wind and the sun. Short of running or walking to school and the workplace, a much more palatable solution is gaining popularity: biodiesel.

Biodiesel is a fuel composed of methyl esters - chemical structures - that can be substituted for petroleum diesel fuel with virtually no engine modifications except for changing some hoses to a more durable material. Biodiesel will run in any diesel engine in cars, trucks, buses and farm equipment, and it improves the vehicle's performance because of its higher viscosity and lubricating properties.

Production of biodiesel uses vegetable oil as a feedstock, methanol and sodium hydroxide. That's right, simple vegetable oil - which itself can fuel a diesel engine with the necessary dual-tank setup - might save the world.

Since vegetable oil is an agricultural product, farmers will benefit from increased production and profitability, as will the rest of the planet as we are less exposed to the environmental and geopolitical hazards of oil exploration, production and unfettered consumption. Though any kind of vegetable oil will work, the oil from palm trees is especially suitable, so warm-weather nations in the developing world could develop additional revenue streams to enhance their economies.

In addition to virgin vegetable oil, biodiesel can be made from waste vegetable oil, which can offset the expense to the food service industry of paying someone to take it away for disposal, if such a disposal service can even be found. Some of this waste vegetable oil is flushed into municipal water and sewer systems, which can cause expensive blockages.

The best part about biodiesel is its environmental benefit. Biodiesel emissions do not produce those ominous black clouds of diesel smoke. Rather, they emit an aroma that some describe as evoking french fries. The air quality improvements can be substantial. In B20, a formulation that is just 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular petroleum diesel, emissions have half the smelly, toxic pollutants, are 20 percent lower in sulfates and have 12 percent less carbon monoxide and particulate matter.

Though widely popular in Western Europe, where transportation systems have been running their diesel vehicles on biodiesel for the last two decades, in part due to much higher oil and gas prices, there are only a handful of commercial biodiesel producers in the United States. Most American biodieselers homebrew their concoctions in their garages or pool resources, time and knowledge in communities such as Corvallis, Ore., to create biodiesel co-ops.

Biodiesel's implications are far too radical and far too liberating to be dismissed as mere "hippie science." Its production process is simple, and with ongoing academic and industry research, it is becoming cheaper and easier to produce.

Given that there are now more motor vehicles than licensed drivers in the United States, and with hybrid cars in great demand, if every new automobile came with a diesel or biodiesel option in addition to the traditional gasoline-spark-ignition engine, and if older models were gradually retrofitted, we could improve the environment and our geopolitical exposure to petroleum. Acceptance of biodiesel will increase as more consumers are able to choose it.

There would be no need to raise a fuss about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, let alone drill there, and we could reduce our perverse dependence on Middle East oil.

It is time to try something different with our energy policy, something simple and abundant and available now.

Nicholas AuYeung is a senior chemical engineering major at the University of Connecticut. Daniel Buccino is a founder and director of the Baltimore Psychotherapy Institute.

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