The Hidden Difficulties of Biofuel Production

August 8, 2014 | By | Reply More

bio fuel 1 During the Spring 2014 semester at Haverford College, students in Chemistry 112 lab made biodiesel under the instruction of Professor Kelly Matz. The task was designed to explore the how biofuel is produced and how biofuels might alleviate the pressures of global warming, greenhouse gas emission, increasing fuel costs and dependency on foreign oil. 

With the possibility that fossil fuel sources could be depleted within the next fifteen years, the issue of finding alternative fuel sources is coming to the forefront. Biofuel is one promising alternative to traditional fossil fuels, but it is still not commonly mass-produced. In examining the drawbacks of relying upon biofuels such as those derived of corn, coffee grounds, sugar cane or algae, it is important to consider the issues surrounding the production of the fuel. As is stated in a study by the National Institutes of Health, in order for biofuel to be used on a wide scale, biofuel technology must overcome a number of hurdles. Biofuel must not only be economically competitive and present clear environmental benefits, but it must be easy to produce on a massive scale. This past semester at Haverford College, in my freshman chemistry course, I learned that the production of biodiesel is an intricate process and that even seemingly “perfect” solutions to any issue are more complex than they appear.

A major issue in the production of biodiesel is obtaining a steady supply of oil or other organic matter that can be used to produce the biodiesel. My lab used previously used cooking oil donated from local restaurants. Yet, for biofuel to be fabricated on a larger scale than a college chemistry lab, production could never solely rely upon used oil donated generously from businesses. Large scale biofuel production would need to rely upon crops that had been concertedly cultivated. The environmental impact of massive crop cultivation for the production of biodiesel has not been widely studied. It has been speculated that large scale crop production for use in biofuels could lead to significant strains on food supplies, extreme soil depletion and excess deforestation. One study by Princeton University indicates that clearing untouched land in order to grow biofuel crops can release large quantities of carbon into the atmosphere.

Natural variations in the properties, composition and consistency of most organic matter can present a formidable obstacle in the synthesis of biofuel. In my chemistry lab, the oil that I initially started with was non-uniform and even contained chunks of unidentifiable organic matter. The process of filtering the cooking oil was a challenge, even on a minuscule scale (I filtered only one cup of oil). Filtration of organic matter is a challenge in any production environment. As my filtration system repeatedly became clogged and the oil cooled down too quickly so that it became inadequately viscous, I quickly began to question the feasibility of large scale filtration. After an exhausting attempt to filter the oil, I was left with a thick, clumpy oil substance that did not bode well for a pure or effective biodiesel product.

Another issue in the production of biofuel is the cleanliness of the process. One byproduct of biofuel production is crude glycerol. As I learned first hand, if glycerol is not fully removed from biofuel, soap will form in the product and the biofuel will be significantly less effective. Yet, even if the glycerol byproduct is fully removed from the biofuel, the question of how to dispose of the glycerol remains. Recently, crude glycerol products have been recruited for the production of certain chemicals and as an ingredient in animal feeds. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service’s Environmental Quality Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, has determined that glycerol from biodiesel production can also be used as an ingredient in biodegradable packaging products.

bio-fuelAfter biofuel has been produced, more issues remain to be resolved. Biofuel cannot be used in the vast majority of engines, for a variety of reasons. Biofuel is a natural solvent and if it is introduced to an engine that contains any previous build up of gasoline or diesel, it will dislodge these build ups. This often results in a clogged engine and various malfunctions. Another issue surrounding the applicability of biofuel, is that biofuel generally contains a higher ethanol content than petroleum based fuels do (15% compared to 8-10%). The ethanol content of a fuel greatly impacts the fuel’s chemical properties, and thus, its efficiency. Most engines cannot handle a fuel that contains 15% ethanol. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of 15% ethanol fuels in only a small selection of lightweight vehicles that have been produced after the year 2001.

As I delved into the process of synthesizing biodiesel, the difficulties associated with the process became overwhelmingly apparent. Each step of the project presented new questions, difficulties and doubts. In addition, my attempt to produce biodiesel quickly became messy and imprecise, leaving me with a questionable product, a lab notebook caked in oil and clothing that smelled like an overcooked French fry.

Tags: , , , ,

Category: IEA activity, Research

About the Author ()

I am a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, majoring in Biology on a pre-medical track. I am also a summer intern at the National Institutes of Health and am particularly interested in how the environment impacts health and well being. I am also interested in the conservation of natural resources.

Leave a Reply