The Biodiesel Project: Fuelling the Eco-Revolution

by Martin Fournier

"The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in the course of time as important as the petroleum and coal tar products of the present time." –Rudolph Diesel, 1912

In 1893, German inventor and scientist Rudolph Diesel published a paper entitled "The Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat Engine." His theory described a new kind of combustion engine, which he later patented as the Diesel engine (1895). And the rest is history.

Diesel officially demonstrated his engine at the World Fair in 1900. Did you know that he first ran his engine on peanut oil? That's right, Rudolph was an environmentalist without knowing it! Unfortunately he died in 1913, before finishing his tests of many different vegetable oils.

The good news is that, with very little or no adjustment, most engines today which are based on Diesel's design, can run on vegetable oil as well, and because there are so many different kinds of vegetable oils out there, no formula has been patented for this fuel form, biodiesel.

Sounds too good to be true? Geoff Hill and Peter Doig do not think so. In fact, they have started making lots of biodiesel and would like to share their experience and savoir-faire with BC.

What is biodiesel?

Biodiesel is an eco-fuel that comes from separating vegetable oil into glycerin and 3 fatty acids. The glycerin by product can be reused to make degreasers and some soap. The three fatty acids go through a chemical reaction called transesterification, and become methyl esters or biodiesel. The methyl esters have to be filtered a few times before consumption by your engine.

Biodiesel is a sustainable, long overdue, alternative to gasoline and diesel. When compared to other fossil fuel guzzlers, an engine using only biodiesel spews much, much less toxic emissions.

In the US conventional diesel accounts for 2% of fuel use but is responsible for 40 % of polluting emissions. The most important environmental advantage of biodiesel is a marked reduction of greenhouse gases. Another is its capacity to biodegrade. Unlike fossil fuels, it doesn't pollute natural habitats or the ocean through spills. For toddlers and young infants, biodiesel is also less toxic than salt (although it might taste like old French fries).

Aside from its great environmental advantages, when compared to fossil fuels, biodiesel will not be responsible for world wars and the political instability of the "greed-economics" associated with oil. Biodiesel encourages economic decentralization because its components are easily available. Biodiesel reduces terrorism and envy from poor or disaffected nations or individuals. Biodiesel also reconnects individuals with nature (think recycling and restoration) and increases overall community health.

It also has economic benefits, including a reduced dependence on fluctuating fossil fuel and oil supply; it can be cheaper than fossil fuel because the energy expended in processing is only 30 % or so of the energy it takes to extract fossil fuels.

Biodiesel is much more than a fuel for vehicles; it is fuel for change. By increasing its use, communities can regain their political, social and economic autonomy and slowly move towards a more sustainable way of life without great investment or tumultuous restructuring. Biodiesel use is part of the necessary shift to an earth-friendly environmental paradigm.

The Biodiesel Project

Geoff Hill started making biodiesel in January 2002 at a laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Soon afterwards he found himself overwhelmed with demand and posted a message in Canadian universities to find another committed individual to help him run the project. Peter Doig enthusiastically responded and they have been grease buddies ever since.

Geoff and Peter go around collecting vegetable grease from restaurants and pubs on UBC campus and in Vancouver. They then bring the grease to their lab and separate it into fuel. At the moment they have the capacity to make about 200 litres a week. They plan to increase that figure to 1000 litres pending a bigger facility, and to 5000 litres, pending grants, donations and grease supply.

"We don't have any clean clothes any more, " says Geoff showing me a bucket of prime deep fryer grease. "You must get intimate with the process," Peter tells me. "Put your finger in there," he adds grinning.

On a hot afternoon in July I am making biodiesel under their instructions. It is so simple to make it boggles the mind why production hasn't started everywhere. "It costs about 30 cents a litre to make," says Geoff, "way cheaper than the pump." "Seattle already has a pump station running, and in Montreal the city schools have a 155 bus fleet running on this stuff," says Peter looking determined, and wiping grease beads off his forehead.

"And now the glycerin will separate when you heat it," begins Geoff. "The fatty acids will be transformed again into methyl esters," he continues, holding a transparent flask under the fluorescent laboratory lights, "As you can see now the glycerin has separated and is stuck on the bottom of this jar."

Peter joins in, "On this board here you can see the chemical reaction. Hydrocarbons in fossil fuels have a long carbon chain," he says scribbling madly with a chalk on a green board. Peter is the scientist behind the Biodiesel Project, whereas Geoff is the public relations coordinator and promoter. "And here we have the biodiesel chemical structure, there are less emissions because there are less hydrocarbons in biodiesel," he continues.

The room is now boiling hot and smells like fish and chips mixed with vegetable tempura. Geoff and Peter pass around a sheet with the biodiesel recipe.

And we proceed to make biodiesel. "We are already running all the UBC plant operations' vehicles with this," says Geoff, "and when funding comes we want to expand to 5000 litres a week and start selling locally."

I ask, "Is this stuff dangerous, could it explode in an engine?" Peter answers, "Biodiesel has a higher flash point than regular gas, it needs way more heat to catch on fire." Mmm… I think to myself, "Why are we still using fossil fuels?" Once our biodiesel reaction is done we examine the glycerin left at the bottom and Geoff and Peter bring out some already clean biodiesel. They put it in little jars and we make some biodiesel fuel lamps to take home.

You can email, write or phone Geoff and Peter to book biodiesel-making seminars, help them with vegetable grease and donations, or to find out more about the project.

* Geoff Hill, Biodiesel Project Coordinator; Ph: (604)323-4311; email:
* Peter Doig, Biodiesel Project Scientist, Ph: (604)225-0735; address: 4553 West 11th., Vancouver, BC, V6R 2N5. See also The Biodiesel Project thanks Nic's Garage, 120 W 1st Ave, Vancouver for their donation of "much time and energy."

[From WS August/September 2002]


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