Lose that fat! Turn it into … biodiesel?

A burgeoning trend is that of turning “trash into treasure,” where innovation is employed to transform waste into a usable product. The world is becoming increasingly environmentally aware, and is seeking energy-consumption methods that have less dangerous ramifications on the environment. A potentially lucrative development is the biodiesel fuel industry. In the global community, it is garnering attention and greater importance as an alternate energy fuel.

Biodiesel is essentially made from recycled cooking oil, animal fats, and plant oils. With the addition of several chemicals, the oil then undergoes the process of “transesterification,” where the glycerin is isolated from the oils. The result – methyl esters (the chemical name for biodiesel) and glycerin (which can be used in the soap making process. It is a relatively simple process not limited to major corporations, and homemade recipes can be found in abundance on the Internet.

Several factors can be attributed to the growing industry of the biodiesel fuel, geopolitical factors being some of the major factors. In Australia, the government plans to cut excise tax on biodiesel to half the current tax rate. The change is expected to go into effect around 2011-2015. Under the recommendation of its Environmental Protection Administration, Taiwan is currently experimenting with biodiesel use for public buses, transport trucks and garbage trucks. The European Union is planning to pass regulations that will require the proportion of biofuels to increase from 2% to 5.75% by 2010. In the United States, the government encourages the use of biodiesel by offering rebates of 50 cents to $1 per gallon of biodiesel. In addition, federal and state governments are offering other investment incentives on biodiesel partnerships. The Environmental Protection Agency is offering grants to private/public partnerships to develop efficient means of manufacturing and distribution of biodiesel products. On a state level, state-license waste oil collectors began a program in January 2006, in which used cooking oil was collected from Oberlin restaurants, to be processed and made into biodiesel fuel.

The growing demand for biodiesel fuel is making its presence known in the automotive industry. Ford is developing an engine that will cater to a “Tri-Flex” fueling concept. This engine is expected to be able to accommodate hydrogen, ethanol or gasoline fuel. General Motors now is developing their own concept engines with Flexfuel engines, that can run on combinations of fuels – gasoline only or a blend of 85% ethanol plus 15% gasoline, and is looking to create an engine than can run on any variation of fuels.

Part of biodiesel’s appeal lies in the benefits that its use offers. Vehicles that use biodiesel emit cleaner exhaust, and it can be used in many of today’s diesel engines. It also contributes to less engine wear due to the lubricating qualities of the used cooking oil. Restaurants that give their used oil often save hundreds of dollars a year in disposal costs.

Some companies are already capitalizing on this growing trend. Biodiesel is the second largest alternative fuel in Australia, and Axiom Energy built biodiesel plants that recycle cooking oil, tallow, palm oil, and waste plastics such as plastic bags. American slaughterhouses, due to USDA regulations are required to routinely rinse out the machines that process livestock. Because of the cleanings, dissolved air flotation sludge or DAF is produced in excess. Greenshift Corporation developed a method in which the amount of DAF is reduced. From the remaining DAF, the fat is extracted to then make biodiesel. In collaboration with American slaughterhouses, there is an estimated waste disposal saving of $400 a year. A Nebraskan company is currently developing a processing system that creates methane gas from animal wastes to power ethanol plants. The energy from the ethanol plants then produces fuel and distills grain to feed cattle which are then slaughtered, from which the wastes then can be converted into fuel.

In Brazil, vehicle engines that accommodate a variety of fuels are gaining popularity. GEA Group AG’s Plant and its plant engineering subsidiary Lurgi AG established contracts to build biodiesel plants in Germany and US for 170 million euros.

With the emergence of the biodiesel industry also comes the emergence of other possibly profitable industries. The marketing sector could be heavily used to expose the public to this type of alternative fuel. In America especially, there is a wide breadth of market segments – the biodiesel user could be the “Average Joe”, the trucker, and the farmer. The modern American is particularly responsive to the concept of eco-friendly products. For example, Toyota forecasts that it will sell more than 150.000 Prius hybrid cars in the US. Rising gas prices and a dependency on Middle East imports have spurred a patriotic element in the market, and Americans see biodiesel as a means of decreasing money spent on imported crude oil.

In keeping with the independence, Thomas Dorr, head of the Agriculture Department says that Iowa has the potential to become a key player in the biodiesel industry, in that they are a major supplier of corn that can be made into ethanol. Instead of establishing an industry that relies on the waste byproducts of restaurants, the collection process could be eliminated by simply establishing plants that are self-reliant and manufactures the raw materials for biodiesel production on-site. The establishment of processing plants could create more jobs for Americans.
Across the globe, Namibia, looking into employment prospects of such an industry, is developing possibilities of establishing the industry. A growing infrastructure begets the need for efficient means of energy. The hotel and restaurant industry could easily generate excessive amounts of cooking oil to be made into biodiesel. A company that could supply the Namibians with the biodiesel facilities could potentially acquire a lucrative contract.

What could make the biodiesel industry even more promising is if innovation found a way to keep the biodiesel fuel from coagulating in cold conditions. Currently, to keep the alternate fuel from thickening, users have to blend in regular diesel. A biodiesel that maintains its durability in cold weather could further its profitability. In addition, since a byproduct of the biodiesel process is glycerin, biodiesel companies could set up partnerships with soap-making companies.

Should the biodiesel as an alternative fuel in vehicles show signs of success, perhaps the possibilities of manufacturing boats, motorcycles, and airplanes that accommodate biodiesel fuel should be investigated. Biodiesel use could also be expanded into public transportation. The feasibility of biodiesel pumps at conventional gas stations may also be of worthy research. The biodiesel industry – the manufacturing and distribution – looks to be a promising industry.

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