On-Farm Biodiesel Production from Waste Vegetable Oil

Final Report for FW00-014

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2000: $1,805.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information


· Create a biodiesel production model to produce weekly batches of biodiesel fuel for use in the vehicles owned by Independence Valley Farm
· Evaluate biodiesel's economic viability
· Reduce environmentally harmful exhaust emissions by replacing petroleum-based fuel with cleaner burning biodiesel
· Reduce economic dependence on petrochemical corporations by fostering local production of fuel needs
· Gain biodiesel experience in improving engine performance and cold weather operations
· Produce design guidelines and demonstrate production methods to educate other regional farmers

Biodiesel is a nontoxic, biodegradable, diesel-like fuel made primarily from waste vegetable oil. Independence Valley Farm used a chemical process called transesterification to make weekly batches of biodiesel. The process involves mixing heated vegetable oil with methanol and lye to produce an alternative fuel suitable for diesel engines without any engine modifications.

During the 2000 season, the farm replaced 330 gallons of petroleum-based diesel fuel with biodiesel in their two tractors and market van. Burning biodiesel reduced their dependency on petroleum-based fuels and lowered emissions of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, soot and several carcinogenic compounds. Money normally paid to distant petrochemical companies stayed on the farm as labor pay for employees making biodiesel. Producing and burning biodiesel in farm vehicles brought the community a step closer to ecological and economic sustainability.

The vehicles performed well with 100% biodiesel and blends with conventional diesel. Horsepower tests using a dynamometer on a tractor confirmed published results that biodiesel performs nearly equal to diesel.

Given its higher lubricity values, biodiesel is an excellent, if not superior, alternative to diesel. The addition of even a small amount of biodiesel made the engine burn significantly cleaner. However, biodiesel thickens in cold weather and it needs to be blended with diesel. An alternative would be using a fuel-heating system.

Create a farm-scale biodiesel production model:

The researchers developed their biodiesel production system based on research from the University of Idaho and other research organizations. Mike Pelly, a local environmental energy pioneer, developed most of their methods. To make the biodiesel, the researchers collected waste vegetable oil weekly from restaurant dumpsters. The oil was heated in a stainless steel drum by an electric strap heater. Methanol and lye were measured and premixed. The resulting sodium methodoxide was poured into the heated oil and mixed for one hour before being allowed to cool. They made enough biofuel to replace more than one-third of the 400 gallons of fuel that the farm uses each year.

Evaluate biodiesel's economic viability:

The widespread production of biodiesel has been limited by its inability to compete economically with subsidized petroleum diesel. However, using waste vegetable oil instead of new oil greatly reduced the cost of the biofuel. Custom equipment for making the fuel can also be expensive, but using homemade and used mixing equipment made it affordable and effective. The researchers were able to make biodiesel for only 42 cents a gallon, excluding costs for equipment or labor wages. It usually took four hours to make each batch of fuel.

"As diesel prices continue to rise and emissions standards become stricter, biodiesel becomes increasingly more prevalent in agricultural, commercial and governmental fleets," says the group's report.

Reduce environmentally harmful exhaust emissions:

Biodiesel replaced the black, sooty smoke associated with diesel engines with a light exhaust. It significantly lowered or even eliminated emissions of harmful carcinogens. Unlike petroleum diesel, there is no sulfur in biodiesel, and carbon dioxide is reduced by 50%. Biodiesel proved to be nontoxic and rapidly biodegradable.

"Using biodiesel considerably reduces the overall environmental impact of diesel exhaust," the report says.

Reduce economic dependency on petrochemical corporations:

In the 2000 season, Independence Valley Farm replaced 330 gallons of diesel with biodiesel, representing more than $500 in fuel money. Because the time spent preparing 500 gallons of biofuel is almost the same as that required to produce 50 gallons, a cooperative facility could greatly lower production costs.

Gain experience using biodiesel:

The greatest difficulty was overcoming biodiesel's tendency to thicken in colder temperatures. However, this was rarely a problem because most farm work is done in summer. In winter, mixing biofuel with petroleum diesel helped, as did the use of a fuel-tank heater. Another option was to fill one of two fuel tanks in a truck with petroleum diesel and one tank with biodiesel. The regular diesel could be used to start the car on a cold day. Then the engine could be switched over to the heated biodiesel.

Another disadvantage (and advantage) is that the methanol in biodiesel acts as a solvent that will clean out a vehicle's fuel system. The methanol will strip the dirty residue off of the inside of the fuel tanks and clog the system, but an inexpensive fuel filter can keep the system from clogging. The problem soon disappears once the fuel system is cleaned out.

Produce guidelines and demonstrate production methods to other farmers:

Through workshops, the researchers demonstrated to regional farmers the benefits of biodiesel and how easy it is to make.

Farmers could potentially replace all of their summer fuel needs with biodiesel made on the farm. Burning this waste product reduces dependency on nonrenewable petroleum while eliminating or significantly lowering harmful emissions. Moreover, fuel money normally sent to distant petrochemical companies stays on the farm as labor pay. This system can bring agricultural communities closer to ecological and economic sustainability.

At first, the usual reaction to the project was incredulity and disbelief, followed by a barrage of questions about the costs, concerns, benefits and the how-to of biodiesel production. This project allowed a farmer to answer these questions by providing a model.

It's one thing to learn about corporate or university research into alternative energy on the six o'clock news, says the report, but it's quite another to know that your neighbor at the farmers market is pulling in on a truck powered by a clean-burning, high performance fuel made from a waste product.

Independence Valley Farm had excellent success integrating biodiesel production and use into its operation. However, the farm is closing down before it could experience the complete replacement of conventional diesel with farm-produced biodiesel. Two neighboring farms are now preparing to use Independence Valley Farm's production set-up to make their own biofuel.

Biodiesel stores well and farmers can produce large amounts during the slower parts of the year. It is most effective to make the fuel in large quantities. However, farmers should be cautious of some manufacturer's warranties that will be voided if the vehicle is filled with biofuel. Some states are beginning to offer tax incentives for using alternative fuels.

A future project would be development of a large-scale cooperative facility to produce biodiesel. With enough interest, farmers could pool their resources to streamline the production process. A larger facility could implement more automated systems and maximize mixing efforts.

Another project could explore the uses of glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel production. Markets for crude glycerin could make the production of biofuel more affordable.

The results of this project were presented at the 2001 Washington Tilth Conference in Olympia, and the report was submitted for publication in the conference newsletter. In October 2000, more than 25 farmers, mechanics and energy enthusiasts attended a workshop on the farm. They were given information about how to start a small-farm biodiesel production system. Students from Evergreen State College also visited the farm to learn about the product.

Joseph Gabiou designed the biodiesel production system for the farm and used it during the 2000 season. He oversaw the outreach of the project and continues his research on the economics of a scaled-up production system. Betsie DeWreede owns Independence Valley Farm and provided the financial support for the project.


Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.