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The fuel crops

As far as alternative fuels go, biodiesel is close to everyone?s hearts -- and lungs. Virtually non-flammable.

india Updated: May 01, 2006 00:07 IST

Why is country legend Willie Nelson crooning On the road again when oil prices are topping $ 70 a barrel? He should know -- he champions the use of biodiesel to power automobiles. His Dallas-based alternative energy company processes soybean and other vegetable oils into his signature brand of fuel -- called, of course, BioWillie -- that can be used in modern diesel engines without any vehicle modifications. Producing alternative fuel has never been this easy: you grow it on the farm!

As far as alternative fuels go, biodiesel is close to everyone’s hearts -- and lungs. Virtually non-flammable (igniting at a much higher temperature than standard diesel), it burns cleaner, and has far lower greenhouse gas emissions than the diesel you get at the local pump, dramatically cutting air pollution by over 75 per cent. And since it’s less toxic than table salt, and biodegrades faster than sugar, it’s harmless to even aquatic ecosystems. If you spill it in soil, micro-organisms metabolise the oils and remove the contamination naturally!

The concept of using vegetable oil fuel is as old as the diesel engine whose inventor, Rudolph Diesel, experimented with all kinds of fuels, including powdered coal. Although he powered his prototype engine with peanut oil, the idea never took off, as petroleum-based fuel became cheaper and diesel engines were adapted to burn petroleum distillate. By the end of the Seventies, however, the rising cost of petroleum distillate had scientists scrambling to find the ideal fatty acid methyl esters -- the biodegradable group of molecules that make up biodiesel. When a plant or animal-based fat reacts with an alcohol like ethanol or methanol, biodiesel is produced (along with glycerin, which can be used to make soaps and fossil fuel-free plastics). Used oil from restaurants to tallow from meat processing facilities all yield biodiesel.

The Indian government has an active biodiesel programme, promoting the cultivation of crops like Jatropha whose non-edible oils yield biodiesel. In fact, DaimlerChrysler India has already completed road trials of their Mercs powered by pure biodiesel in the country’s hot and humid conditions. Last week, the Oregon State University developed a credit card-sized plastic chemical reactor that uses alcohol and vegetable oil to produce biodiesel. Parallel channels thinner than a human hair on the microreactor bring them into contact with each other in the presence of a sodium hydroxide catalyst, generating a stream of 100 per cent biodiesel, along with glycerin. Thousands of these microreactors in an integrated system the size of, say, a telephone, could produce up to 400,000 litres of biodiesel a year. Looks like the world can’t wait to rev up on the road again!