Although it may seem like a complicated process, making biodiesel is actually not too difficult a task to accomplish, and can actually be produced from common cooking oils and grease waste! In an experiment conducted by our Environmental Chemistry class, biodiesel was successfully produced through a process called transesterification from different feedstocks, such as Wesson canola oil, olive oil, soybean oil, and waste oil from USD’s dining facility La Paloma. Transesterification is a chemical process that can separate fats or oils into glycerin, which can later be used in production of soaps, and methyl esters, a chemical name for biodiesel.
You may be wondering what is the importance of making biodiesel and why use it as an energy source when you could easily use fossil fuels instead? Well, the processes utilized in the production and usage of fossil fuels emit large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to rise, breaking new record highs each year and sparking concern regarding its impact on climate change. Thus, scientific motives have arisen to create more environmentally-friendly renewable fuel sources to serve as alternatives to burning fossil fuels for energy usage.
These renewable alternatives would consist of fuels that generate very low greenhouse gas emissions throughout production and use and have the ability to sustain production indefinitely, such as biofuels. Biofuels, which can be produced from vegetable oils, animal fats, leftover waste grease, and other oil sources used in our experiment, have many advantages over most fossil fuels. For instance, they are carbon-neutral, safer to handle and less toxic than diesels, and emit less pollutants into the air due to their combustion efficiency.
Our lab also tested various properties of the biofuels produced, such as fatty acid content, free fatty acid content, heat of combustion, toxicity, and fatty acid methyl ester composition, to use for comparison in comparing the potential biofuel efficiency and safety. Soybean oil was found to have the highest fatty acid content, while olive oil and La Paloma waste oil had the highest heat of combustions. In addition, biofuels were generally less toxic to radish seed growth than the other fuels tested, with olive oil being the least toxic. In general, the biodiesels were more concentrated in fatty acids, had higher heat of combustions, and were more successful in regard to radish seed germination and plant growth, as compared to other fuels tested, such as ethanol, butanol, and USD diesel.
From this experiment, biofuels do seem to be a good alternative to diesels and other fuels, however, more research needs to be done to assess whether biofuel production and usage is truly less harmful to the environment than other fossil fuels. Nevertheless, I feel that this movement towards using biofuels is definitely a step in the right direction in trying to decrease the amount of anthropogenic CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere.