The History of Biodiesel Fuel
The diesel engine was invented by Rudolph Diesel in the 1890s. It is now the engine of choice for power, reliability, and high fuel economy. Early experimenters on vegetable oil fuels included the French government and Dr. Diesel himself. Modern biodiesel fuel is made by converting vegetable oils into compounds called fatty acid methyl esters.
The modern biodiesel industry was not established until the late 1980s. However, today the biodiesel industry is working hard to provide a renewable fuel source for the transportation sector. Let’s take a look at the history of biodiesel.
The diesel engine has long been a favorite of heavy equipment operators and truckers. Diesel engines are known for their power and reliability, and today they can be fueled by a variety of fuels, including diesel fuel, kerosene, vegetable oils, and even coal dust. The first public demonstration of a diesel engine running on vegetable oil was at the 1900 World’s Fair when the French government commissioned the Otto company to build a diesel engine to run on peanut oil. The French government was interested in vegetable oils as a domestic fuel for their African colonies. Rudolf Diesel later did extensive work on vegetable oil fuels and became a leading proponent of such a concept, believing that farmers could benefit from providing their own fuel. However, it would take almost a century before such an idea became a widespread reality.
Shortly after Dr. Diesel died in 1913, petroleum became widely available in a variety of forms, including the class of fuel we know today as “diesel fuel.” With petroleum being available and cheap, the diesel engine design was changed to match the properties of petroleum diesel fuel. The result was an engine that was fuel efficient and very powerful. For the next 80 years, diesel engines would become the industry standard where power, economy, and reliability are required.
As vegetable oil is less viscous than petroleum diesel fuel, it gained little attention as a fuel source except during times of high oil prices and shortages. World War II and the oil crises of the 1970s saw some interest in using vegetable oils to fuel diesel engines, but the newer engine designs at the time couldn’t run on traditional vegetable oils.
A method was needed to lower the viscosity of vegetable oils to a point where they could be burned properly in the diesel engine. Many methods have been proposed to perform this task, including pyrolysis, blending with solvents, and even emulsifying the fuel with water or alcohols, none of which have provided a suitable solution. It was a Belgian inventor in 1937 who first proposed using the process of transesterification to convert vegetable oils into fatty acid alkyl esters and use them as a diesel fuel replacement.
The process of transesterification is used to convert vegetable oil into three smaller molecules, which are less viscous and easier to burn in a diesel engine. Transesterification is the basis for the production of modern biodiesel, which is the trade name for fatty acid methyl esters. In the early 1980s, concerns over the environment, energy security, and agricultural overproduction led to renewed interest in using vegetable oils as fuel replacements, with transesterification as the preferred method.
Pioneering work in Europe and South Africa by researchers such as Martin Mittelbach in the early 1990s furthered the development of the biodiesel fuel industry, with the U.S. industry coming on more slowly due to lower prices for petroleum diesel. Pacific Biodiesel became one of the first biodiesel plants in the United States in 1996, establishing a biodiesel production operation to recycle used cooking oil into biodiesel on the island of Maui in Hawaii.
In the early 2000s, however, concerns about the environmental impact of diesel engines began to grow. Diesel engines are known for their high emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM), both of which can cause serious health problems. In response to these concerns, a number of states began to implement new regulations on diesel emissions. As a result, many trucking companies and equipment operators began to look for alternative fuels which would allow them to meet the new regulations.
The biodiesel industry became a household name in the U.S. after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 resulted in historically high oil prices and increased awareness of energy security. As of 2005, biodiesel production had reached 1.1 billion gallons worldwide, with most fuel being produced in the European Union. However, biodiesel projects worldwide have risen due to rising crude oil prices and concerns over global warming.
The use of biodiesel is on the rise due to its clean emissions profile and many other benefits. It is cost competitive with petroleum diesel and provides users with economic and environmental benefits. In order to maintain a sustainable supply of biodiesel, vegetable oils and fats need to be produced without displacing land used for food production or harming natural ecosystems. Creating biodiesel in a sustainable manner will allow this clean, renewable, and cost-effective fuel to help ease the world through increasing shortages of petroleum while providing economic and environmental benefits well into the 21st century.
The diesel engine was developed out of a desire to improve upon inefficient, cumbersome, and sometimes dangerous steam engines of the late 1800s. Today the engine is the workhorse of the transportation industry, from pick-up trucks and tractor trailers to school buses and city buses. With the current climate crisis at hand, biodiesel is more important than ever to reduce greenhouse gases and control environmental impacts while keeping trucks and buses on the road.