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Research Paper on Biodiesel

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This sample environmental science research paper explores the importance and significance of biodiesel production methods that will enhance ecological security. Alternative fuels and renewable sources of energy are the future of the energy market, and this paper goes into serious depth regarding the ways in which ecological security can be obtained.

Introduction to biodiesel fuel

It appears, after considering a variety of options, waste oil (yellow grease) and/or microalgae, as opposed to the myriad other plant oils currently used or contemplated, may be two productive and more ecology-friendly energy options. Creating enough biodiesel fuel will help reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

While biodiesel has been around for almost one hundred years, until the past two decades, biodiesel has not demanded the attention it does now as a viable major alternative, both as a money-making opportunity and as an environmental silver bullet.

The trouble is that as in most environmental questions, there are two (or more) sides, and they are a little like nitro and glycerin. Where they coincide, they explode. Thus, while some crops are capable of producing tomorrow’s industrial fuels, there is the potential cost, in starvation and the planet’s survival.

While some developing countries with vast geography may see biodiesel as a future export industry and domestic solution to oil dependence, it often comes at the expense of using those same fields to grow food, or at the cost of clear-cutting trees which are essential to the earth’s supply of oxygen. Sorting out the multitude of competing claims is never easy.

Microalgae does not require setting aside fields used to grow food crops to produce fuel and yellow grease involves recycling already used cooking oil available in sufficient quantities around the world to at least make a difference.

Historical development of biodiesel

The diesel engine was developed by Rudolph Diesel over 125 years ago as an alternative energy resource to the bulky steam engines of the day and as a means of bringing the smaller more efficient engine to smaller companies. (Radich 1) Diesel’s engine differed from the engine created by Nicklaus Otto in that Diesel’s system did not require a spark.

Ignition was based on compression of the fuel until it ignited. Higher compression resulted in more power. Diesel foresaw being able to use vegetable oil to run his engines, making it easier to produce fuel wherever his engines were available. Rudolph Diesel used peanut oil to run his prototype engine at the outset and later experiments improved the performance of these oils by transesterifying them with alcohols to produce what we call “biodiesel”.

However, because distillate from petroleum was cheaper to use and plentiful, it was not until the 1970s when oil supply problems arose that the idea of using biodiesel arose again. But it was another 25 years before marketable production was undertaken, though at levels far below what would be considered significant. (Radich 2)

Edible plants oils that produce biodiesel

Now, a complex set of competing interests have arisen to create the demand for alternative and eco-friendly fuels, and biodiesel has been one of the important considerations in the mix of solutions. But it seems that no matter in which direction a step is taken, there is peril and some objections from some interested group.

Since biodiesel can be made from, among other things, food crops, there are those who believe producing them does not meet ecological, environmental, and human needs. Opponents also worry if the growth of plants is fast enough to accommodate fuel needs. Another category of potential feedstocks for biodiesel is microalgae. (Liu, et al. 135)

Edible plant oils

  • Soybean
  • Rapeseed
  • Palm
  • Canola
  • Peanut
  • Cottonseed
  • Sunflower
  • Safflower

Soybean predominates in the United States, palm oil is prevalent in Malaysia and Indonesia, and rapeseed is most common in Europe.

Non-edible oils

  • Jatropha
  • Karanja
  • Jonoba
  • Neem

Jatropha and Karanja may contain toxic elements, and are not widely used outside India.

Animal fats and waste oils

  • Tallow
  • Lard
  • Yellow grease
  • Other waste cooking oils

Advantages and disadvantages of using biodiesel as an alternative fuel

Although particular biodiesel produced from a variety of sources may have different properties and pros and cons, the following are some of the general advantages and disadvantages of biodiesel fuels.

Advantages coming from switching to biodiesel fuels

Since biodiesel fuel auto-ignites, the speed with which it ignites is measured by the fuel’s cetane number. Diesel fuel made with petroleum distillate has cetane ranges from 40 to 52, while soybean biodiesel could range from 45.8 to 56.9. Higher cetane ratings mean faster ignition. (Radich 2).

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the lubricating properties of biodiesel (lubricity) are more reliable than petroleum-based diesel. (Radich 2; “Biodiesel Benefits”). Biodiesel is also a cleaner burning fuel than petroleum-based diesel, reducing tailpipe emissions. (“Biodiesel Benefits”; “Biodiesel and the Environment”). When blended with petroleum, up to a 20% blend (B20), biodiesel is energy balanced, having approximately 3.2 times the energy expended to produce it. (“Biodiesel Benefits”).

Biodiesel may also be carbon neutral as some sources such as soybeans or palm oil absorb CO2 while growing, although, as discussed in more detail below, this issue is complicated by the competing negative effects of clear-cutting swaths of land to make room for these crops. Biodiesel is also safer to handle, given its somewhat higher flashpoint (150°C compared to 52°C for petroleum diesel). The cleaner emissions also help reduce the pollutions connected by some scientists to climate change.

Understanding biodiesel's disadvantages and limitations

On the other hand, biodiesel does have some low temperature performance issues, having to do with the formation of wax crystals, resulting in clogging, and this is generally worse for yellow grease biodiesel than soybean biodiesel. (Radich 3). Traditionally, in colder climates, this could pose performance challenges.

However, there are additives and strategies (such as heaters, parking vehicles inside in Winter, using engine block or fuel filter heaters) that can be utilized to reduce the effects of cold weather. (“OEE Biodiesel Safety”). There are also limitations on some of the sources of biodiesel feedstocks, as for instance with yellow grease, which in the United States is insufficient to meet transport fuel requirements. (Radich 7).

On the other hand, China produces enough yellow grease annually (44 billion gallons, over twenty times as much as the United States) to satisfy a larger portion of its lower biodiesel requirements. (“Waste Oil”). Another downside, as described in Liu, et al, and Table 3 therein, is that for plant oils, enormous tracts are land would be needed, monopolizing too much of a country’s arable land for non-food production, and resulting in cutting down far too many trees. (Liu, et al, 142-143; Doornosch, and Steenblik, 3-4 ). Environmental policies in the U.S. currently limit the number of trees removed and require equal number replanted in another location.

Competing interests in biodiesel production and use

An ear of corn can go to market to feed people, or can be used to feed starving people, or it can be used to produce fuel. On a field that is already part of a farm used to grow food, using it to produce corn is probably acceptable to most interests.

However, using the field to produce corn to turn a higher profit by selling the corn to make biofuels could leave more people starving. The slogan “Fill ‘er up, starve a child” would not be acceptable to almost anyone. Of course, businesses do not always behave like good citizens, and therefore using that field to make more money may be logical, from a corporate profits standpoint.

Military wanting to switch to cleaner and more efficient fuel methods will create a market those businesses cannot ignore. For example, the U.S. military recently announced its decision to use more environmentally safe energy sources. Seeking a larger profit than standard agricultural sales can provide, businesses may start devoting more land to fuel and less to food needs and exports.

Also, if an undeveloped or developing country is trying to establish exports, or import less fuel, it might decide that it is also preferable to use that field to grow corn to make biofuels. These are just a few of the complications regarding an already existing field on an already existing farm.

  • What if the field were instead a stand of trees, and they were cut down to make room for soybean farms or palm plants to produce biodiesel?
  • What if they were instead millions of stands of trees?
  • What if the stands of trees were in the Amazon Rain Forest?
  • What if, instead of clearing land to grow food so that starving people can be fed, land is cleared to grow feedstocks to make biofuels?
  • What if no remaining lands are cleared to grow food because the real money is in selling crops to make fuel?
  • What if the farms are not owned by Farmer Jones, but rather some enormous agribusinesses with stockholders and profits to make?

Maybe it sounds a little like Avatar on Earth. As Doornosch points out:

"...expansion...could not be achieved...without significant impacts on the wider global economy...It is more likely that land-use constraints will limit the amount of new land that can be brought into production leading to a “food-versus-fuel” debate. Moreover, land use will be driven by the net private benefit owners can derive from their land. Any diversion of land from food or feed production to production of energy biomass will influence food prices....

The effects on farm commodity prices can already be seen.... The growth of the biofuels industry is also likely to place pressure on the environment and biodiversity... [I]n tropical regions, where suitable and available land is mostly concentrated ... as long as environmental values are not adequately priced ... there will be powerful incentives to replace natural ecosystems such as forests, wetlands and pasture land with dedicated bio-energy crops...." (Doornosch, and Steenblik, 4)

Biodiesel concerns realize in other nations

The foregoing hypotheticals are, in some cases, not hypothetical, as in the case of Malaysia and Indonesia, where millions of trees have been cleared to plant palm plants for biodiesel, or in the case of Brazil and the Amazon, where trees have been cleared to make room for crops such as soybeans to make biofuels or sugars to make ethanol.

Poverty levels are high in these two nations. In each of these countries, there are many, many tens of millions of hungry mouths to feed, and there are people on many sides arguing over these complexities. (Doornosch, and Steenblik, 3-4). Which interest is best served? To produce cleaner fuel to save the planet? To grow food for the starving? To grow the economy of a developing country by exporting billions of barrels of biodiesel? There are no easy answers, but part of the solution may lie in using waste oil and microalgae, two more sustainable methods that do not involve some of these choices.

Breakdown of the individual types of biodiesel fuels

Yellow grease

Doornosch and Patil, et al. identified waste oil as one of two sustainable methods for producing biodiesel. Because it involves essentially recycling cooking oil which has already been used, it does not involve any charge on the environment as with plant oils (Doornosch, and Steenblik,4-5; Patil, et al. 107). As Patil, et al. point out, in fact using waste oil to produce biodiesel would serve the interests of removing the waste oil from the environment, something that is often mandated by law, because when discarded in sewer systems, waste oil can create environmental problems. (Patil, et al. 107).

Moreover, using waste oil also reduces the cost of the biodiesel as waste oil is generally cheaper than edible oils, and after transesterification, yellow grease actually had a higher cetane rating than diesel, indicating more efficient ignition. (Ibid) Patil, et al. also reported that viscosity of the waste oil biodiesel was similar to regular diesel, which means no modifications of equipment are necessary. (111)

As for issues regarding diminished performance under cold conditions, Patil, et al. noted that many advancements had been made in developing mixtures and additives to combat this problem, in particular where biodiesel is mixed with regular diesel (“This problem could be overcome by the addition of suitable pour point depressants or by blending with diesel oil.”) (Ibid).

Finally, the extent of production could limit the effectiveness of yellow grease as an alternative to fossil fuels, unless yellow grease is viewed as an additive with Diesel (e.g. B20, which means 20% biodiesel, 80% diesel). Patil, et al, notes that 100 million gallons of waste oil are generated each day in the United States, while around 800 million gallons of oil are consumed. It would appear then that waste oil is not a total solution by itself. Combined with other alternative energy sources, such as wind energy, biodiesel can have a significant impact on reducing pollution. (Patel, et al. 107).

Algae as feedstock for biodiesel

Another option that may be added to the basket of biodiesel feedstocks is microalgae, the production of which, like waste oil, does not involve the same environmental concerns as plant oils, such as soybeans and palm oil. In addition to the tens of thousands of potential strains of microalgae available to choose from, there are other advantages to using algae as feedstocks for biodiesel.

First, microalgae reproduce using CO2 and photosynthesis, finishing an entire growth cycle within, in some cases, as little as 8 hours, but typically doubling in size in 26 hours. (Liu, et al. 136). They are also capable of adapting to a wide range of conditions (Ibid), which means they could be used to grow in places where nothing else grows, making use of lands not in competition with growing food, one of the major issues in the production of biodiesel debate currently.

In Liu, et al., Table 3 appears to show that while there is not enough arable land in the United States to produce sufficient biodiesel feedstocks from any other material. (142). With microalgae’s higher yield (compared to soybeans, microalgae yields are 100 times higher per hectare of land, and 10 times that of palm oil, jumping to 300 and 30 times, respectively for high yield microalgae (143)), less land area is needed to meet “all transport fuel needs of the United States” (Ibid).

According to Liu, et al., microalgae is the only biodiesel feedstock that could meet these needs (at only 2.4% of existing cropping area) without exceeding the entire existing cropping area of the United States. By way of example, Liu, et al., suggests that Soybeans would require five times the entire existing cropping area of the United States. (Ibid).

The major disadvantage currently to producing microalgae biodiesel feedstocks is that development of this technology is in its infancy (Liu, et al. 133-135) and currently production costs remain high (152). Research remains to be done to find higher yielding strains, and develop techniques for extracting the oil. (152).


The debate of feed vs. fuel will continue so long as biodiesel feedstocks rely on land and crops with dual uses, such as palm oil and soybeans. Some of the commentators have observed that commercial interests are focused on profits, and where decisions regarding land use are concerned, owners generally choose whichever produces more profit.

Hunger in the world, in particular in developing countries, is not abating, and with the continued expansion of the economies in developing countries, such as China and Brazil, transportation needs are expanding geometrically. There are more people to feed, and more transport vehicles to fuel. Finding the balance is one of the most challenging issues today.

Recycled waste oil (yellow grease) could be one part of the solution, and developing microalgae biodiesel feedstocks and production technology could be another. These provide promise, whereas some other methodologies provide dilemmas.

Works Cited

Alternative Fuels Data Center: Biodiesel Benefits & Considerations. 2012. U.S. Department of Energy (http://www.afdc.energy.gov/ fuels/biodiesel.html) Content last updated July 30, 2012.

“Chinese Consume 3 Million Tons of Toxic Recycled Waste Oil Each Year”. 2010. The Epoch Times. (http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/china-news/waste-oil-recycled-oil-regenerated-oil-carcinogen-china-food-poisoning-31712.html)

Doornosch, Richard and Steenblik, Ronald. “Biofuels: Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?” 2007. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development: Roundtable on Sustainable Development (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/fb8b5078-5fdb-11dc-b0fe-0000779fd2ac.pdf).

Jin Liu, Junchao Huang and Feng Chen (2011). “Microalgae as Feedstocks for Biodiesel Production, Biodiesel” 133-160 in Feedstocks and Processing Technologies, Dr. Margarita Stoytcheva (Ed.), Shanghai: InTech, 2011. (http://www.intechopen.com/books/ biodiesel-feedstocks-and-processingtechnologies/microalgae-as-feedstocks-for-biodiesel-production).

Natural Resources Canada, Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE):Biodiesel Safety and Performance 2010. (http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/transportation/alternative-fuels/fuel-facts/biodiesel/7031). Date Modified: 2010-08-10

P. Patil, V. Gude, H. Reddy, T. Muppaneni and S. Deng, "Biodiesel Production from Waste Cooking Oil Using Sulfuric Acid and Microwave Irradiation Processes," Journal of Environmental Protection, Vol. 3 No. 1, 2012, pp. 107-113. (http://www.scirp.org/ journal/PaperInformation.aspx?paperID=16861).

Radich, Anthony. “Biodiesel Performance, Costs, and Use.” 2004. (http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/ analysispaper/biodiesel/) Page last modified June 8, 2004 9:13:08 PDT.

U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Biodiesel and the Environment” 2012. (http://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=biofuel_biodiesel_environment). Last reviewed March 19, 2012.



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