A reality check

By Peter Woodmore


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As one at the front of research in the use of ethanol and vegetable oil fuels and the destroyer of a few Diesel engines running on vegetable oils in the early 1980s, I thought I might put in my 2 bobs worth.


First, let me say that methyl esters of vegetable oils or bio-Diesel are a great fuel and burn more efficiently than Diesel fuel but they do have their problems.  In this essay I will use figures for sunflower oil, only.


Firstly, we must consider the area of land needed to grow sufficient quantities:  We can expect a yield of 650 litres/hectare or approx 70 US gallons/acre.  Divide this into the amount of Diesel fuel used in the US and you get how many extra acres of land you need just to grow fuel.  “Ah ha,” you say, “We will use recycled oil.”  But you would be lucky if you could recycle 20-percent of what you grow, now.  Also needed would be an area to grow these crops, one that does not suffer droughts, floods or pestilence in order to guarantee a consistent supply.


Esters are an organic solvent and affect some plastics and rubbers, so systems containing them would need to have their seals replaced with those made of Viton A, or better.


Esters react with conventional engine oils; so, if you have bad oil rings you could end up with a thick rubbery goo in the sump.  That would require extra oil changes or “stuffed” engines.


Every tonne of grain will yield 125 US gallons of oil, but there will also be 660-kg of meal that must be disposed of.


The productions of every 100-gallons of bio-Diesel requires 25-gallons of methanol or ethanol and 4-pounds of caustic soda.


For every 100 US gallons of bio-Diesel produced, there will be a byproduct: about 20 gallons of glycerol.  Somehow, a use for this must be found; however, at the present the market is satisfied.


Also required for processing are large quantities of water to wash the oil to remove any residual caustic soda.


Long term storage presents problems with oil reacting with metal containers and becoming thick again, taking on the colour of the metal oxide.  This causes filters and pipes to block [clog] and engines to stop.  Admittedly, this is only a problem with agricultural equipment used seasonally.


Bio-Diesel, if spilled on paintwork, is a good paint stripper.


In Europe and other parts of the world where bio-Diesel is used it is heavily subsidized; this can only happen for a short time.


Many of these things seem minor but when we multiply them by the amount needed to replace Diesel fuel they become major environmental issues.


I still say that bio-Diesel is an excellent substitute for conventional Diesel fuel but I can not see it as a total replacement.  It has many good qualities as well; but, we have to look at it subjectively, along with all the hype.


I see it as only one fuel amongst many that are available now and possibly in the future.  I can not see one energy source alone at the present time that will replace oil; but, there may be a variety of fuels depending on location, fixed or mobile, natural resources available, e.g.  natural gas etc.  No alternate fuel is without some side-effects just as no medicine is without side effects.


That's my 2 bobs worth in as short a space as possible


Peter Woodmore. 

January 15, 2008



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