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Vegetable oil to replace diesel?

"These are my written notes for a presentation and slide show for the Colorado Department of Agriculture at a State Seed Growers' conference in 1994. Not that much has changed in terms of farm commodity pricing." -- Robert Warren


Robert Warren is the former founding director of the California Alcohol Fuel Producers Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting alternatives to using petroleum fuels.

He has published articles on alcohol fuel and vegetable oils as an alternative to using diesel fuels, and has also taught workshops at colleges and universities throughout California on making alternative fuels and converting cars to run on grain alcohol.

His research on alternative fuels spans 20 years, and includes a collection of current proceedings from the most recent (1993) Biomass Conference sponsored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

He has personally built 131 alcohol fuel stills, and has a current permit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to operate a still for the production of 180 proof alcohol for fuel.

The Rocky Mountain Institute
Mr. Warren has been working for the past several years as an independent photovoltaic systems engineer, installer and consultant. His company is called Dependable Power. For the last three years he has also been employed as a solar energy consultant at Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado. He can be reached by email at

Although his day-to-day business involves engineering and selling photovoltaic systems, he does not believe in promoting electric vehicles. Alcohol and vegetable oils can be an alternative, low-cost, and low-polluting solution to meeting our energy needs, in his opinion.

Mr. Warren will be presenting a brief overview of using agricultural biomass products for fuel, along with some interesting observations on farm economics. Mr. Warren has also been a beekeeper for 25 years, and has taught college-level beekeeping.

Vegetable oil to replace diesel?

By Robert E. Warren
May, 1994

Since today is devoted mainly to vegetable oil production, I will speak mainly about the prospect of using vegetable oil as a fuel, although I will first mention my background and experience in promoting the use of grain alcohol as an alternative to gasoline.

In the early 1980s, during the OPEC Oil Embargo, there was a great deal of interest in finding an alternative to gasoline, since in a period of roughly three years, the price of unleaded gasoline rose from $0.69/gal to $1.42/gal.

People were feeling like we were being held hostage in our own country because the sharp increases in gas prices also meant increased prices for food and other necessities, due to increasing transportation costs.

There was also the inconvenience of gas rationing (odd/even day buying at filling stations), longer waiting lines, and short tempers which in a few cases, led to gunpoint violence at the gas pumps.

It was during this period, in 1979-81, that I started meeting on a weekly basis in Sacramento with a group of 12 to 16 other people, and together we formed the California Alcohol Fuel Producers Association.

Our small group included a chemical process engineer, an aerospace engineer, a mechanic who had a successful small business building turbochargers for alcohol fuel dragsters, the author of a book on producing your own alcohol, a couple of teachers, an environmental administrative assistant, and a few others.

I was working at the time as a licensed water treatment technician, although within a few months after forming our group as a legal, non-profit entity, I shifted over to working full time as a director and project coordinator, as well as media spokesperson.

One of our first joint projects was to collectively build a still, produce some high-proof alcohol, and then fuel a vehicle with it. I had already individually invented and built my own solar powered still and publicly demonstrated it, but it required a lot of tinkering to get it to run properly.

So we researched what needed to be done, went shopping for some scrap copper and brass piping, and shifted our meeting location to a local high school welding shop, since one of our teachers taught the welding class there.

In only three or four weeks, we had our first still completed, and on a rainy Sunday soon after, we met at a members' garage to cook up some fermented barley mash and run it through our new still. While some of us ran the still, a couple of others worked at drilling out the carburetor jets and making a fuel line pre-heater to convert a '56 Chevy truck to run on alcohol. Our cost to convert the truck was under $15, mostly for a gasket kit, some copper tubing to wrap around the exhaust manifold as a pre-heater, and some Perma-gasket.

Our first run was only about 140 proof, but it was high enough to run the truck on alcohol at the end of the day. We continued to meet at the welding shop on a weekly basis, and we built some more stills, since many of us wanted our own stills. We kept refining the basic design over and over again, until we had a design that was fairly easy to build, had an automatic temperature controller from the refrigeration industry, and could easily produce 4 or 5 gallons an hour of 160 to 180 proof alcohol.

We also continued tinkering with the truck, as well as converting an army surplus generator, a motorcycle, and even my '71 Toyota pickup to run on alcohol. We could get about 16 to 18 miles/gal on the Chevy truck, which was as good or slightly better than when it had run on gasoline.

In terms of our organization, a real estate broker donated some office space, and we assessed ourselves a membership fee so we could get a phone line. Then we started collecting various published and unpublished papers on alcohol fuel, and we reprinted them for distribution. We created quite a large library of out of print articles, studies, and patents.

We started holding classes on still building and car conversion, holding press conferences to announce our classes, and even started actively lobbying for State support of alcohol fuel research and development. Within two years, we had over 1,000 members, statewide.

We were not alone, however, as there were many other individuals and groups throughout the US, and we got a chance to attend seminars and workshops held by such groups, including an automotive conversion workshop held by Mother Earth News, the magazine.

There were also many agricultural colleges and state-funded farm extension programs we were in contact with, across the US. We also were in touch with many successful individuals doing their own conversion and distillation, such as Chuck Stone, who converted a fleet of cars to alcohol for the Bank of America, as well as an airplane, which he flew coast to coast with a former astronaut.

One of the most successful was Rick Eastman, a farmer in Winters, California, who built a high-capacity trailer-mounted still which could be taken from farm to farm, and from crop to crop. He started a company called Parallel Products, because he was now in the business of producing two products at the same time. This was a very interesting story in itself, as he was a watermelon seed grower, and his harvester went through the fields scooping up ripe watermelon and included a mechanized slicer which shredded the melons, dumping the slurry into a huge tank inside the harvester, then floated the seeds to the top, separating them for later drying.

After a few years of watching all that good, sweet juice being spewed out the back end, he decided to hook up a mild tanker trailer behind the harvester and save the juice for fermentation into alcohol. He studied various commercial still designs, and then specially designed his own which he mounted on the back of a 40-foot flatbed trailer. He made the distillation towers in such a way that they were hinged at the base, so the whole thing could fold down fairly flat for highway travel.

Then, perhaps most important, there was also a magazine, Gasohol, USA, published by Charles Walters in Kansas City, Missouri, which established itself immediately as the trade journal of the alcohol fuel industry. It was a no-nonsense guide to commercial alcohol production. I wrote a few articles for this magazine, and have here some copies to give you of an article I wrote in 1981, about some alcohol powered cars, factory-made in the US by VW, under a contract for the California Energy Commission.

In the meantime, while interest in alcohol fuel was building at a grass roots level, the general public starting to get reports generated from the petroleum industry via the news media, saying that alcohol was not feasible, that it didn't contain enough energy to get good mileage, that it was corrosive and could harm your engine, and that it cost more to grow it and make it into a fuel than you could get out of it.

Specifically, various "scientific" reports were coming out that it took about 90,000 to 95,000 BTUs/gal. to grow, ferment, and distill the fuel, and that there was only 62,000 BTUs of energy available in high-proof ETOH [ethanol].

On the other hand, we were gathering information on a daily basis from university-level research, as well as from the California Department of Agriculture, showing that it was economically feasible to get 500 gallons of fuel per acre from food crops like corn, wheat, and potatoes, and still have a high-quality, high-protein feedstock (distillers-dried grains) as a by-product. Moreover, they showed that making ethanol fuel was a win-win process: any way you looked at it, it was good economics, a good fuel, and good in terms of the environment

One of our lessons learned in that time was that American farmers are an economically oppressed class of people. They are also the hardest working and most self-reliant and inventive people around! Farmers have to buy retail and sell wholesale, as well as borrow money year after year just to plant a crop which may cost more to grow than it will sell for. In fact, most of our commodity crops are still priced very closely to what they were bringing in the early 1950s. Wheat, corn, potatoes, milk, and even eggs and honey are good examples of this.

We met farmers during this period who were making their own fuel for their trucks and tractors, instead of paying the doubled price of petroleum. There was a real movement in this country to be self-reliant, and making your own fuel (as well as giving birth to a wholly new domestic industry) was starting to take hold.

The term gasohol (gasoline with 10% alcohol mixed in) became a household word, nationwide. However, there is another important lesson learned here: namely, that it is hard to buck the economic establishment, and the more likely you are onto something that is likely to succeed and make a huge impact in the way our economy works, the more directly they will fight against you with misinformation and advertising campaigns.

Finally, if it looks like we are gaining too much ground in getting a new alternative fuel industry started, they will use their economic power to fight you by lowering gas prices back down. So, in 1983, oil prices were reduced back down to a level where people were again comfortable with buying their gas, at maybe $1.25 per gallon, and alcohol is no longer a competitor, since it needs to be priced at around $1.45 /gal to be profitable for its producers.

Likewise, research on vegetable oils virtually stopped, after the gasoline prices dropped, even though over 100 scientific papers on vegetable oil as fuel were submitted to the US Department of Agriculture the previous year.

However, interest has continued overseas, such as work by Volkswagen of Brazil, which has run extensive testing of soybean oil on light diesel trucks. They found very little wear problems associated with soy biodiesel after 100,000 miles. Torque, power, and fuel consumption was very similar to diesel, with less smoke, carbon monoxide, and pollution.

The Institute of Agricultural Engineering in Austria has run tests on 33 tractors by 12 different manufacturers, running on rapeseed oil (now commonly called Canola oil), with good performance, and lower emissions. Other tests run in Sweden, France, Italy, and Spain show that soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower oil can give similar power, torque, mileage, and general performance in diesel trucks and other vehicle with no modification whatsoever. Of course, you have a different economic climate in Europe, where diesel sells for $3 to $4 per gallon due to heavy taxation.

This is a big difference between alcohol and biodiesel fuel. To use alcohol in place of gasoline, some carburetor or fuel injector modification is necessary, as well as a fuel pre-heater, and changes in timing and preferably, the compression ratio, if possible. High-proof alcohol still contains a small percentage of water (10% H20 in 180-proof), and this will cause problems if mixed with gasoline. Also, there may be some corrosion in the fuel tank or in the carburetor from grain alcohol. But, by adding a little bit of alcohol to vegetable oil, to create biodiesel, no conversion is necessary for most diesel engines to run on vegetable oil.

By mixing grain alcohol with vegetable oil, say, about 5%, a chemical reaction, producing ethyl esters, occurs which prevents vegetable gums from forming in the oil, so you don't get the injector clogging that you get with straight vegetable oil. This is what biodiesel is. Then, you have a clean, renewable fuel that is domestically produced, and does not require an expensive military presence in the Middle East.

In 1991, the price of soybean meal was $256/ton, which, made into soy oil, would yield biodiesel at a price of $1.26/gal. Now, if you look at the average price of diesel fuel, at a farm delivered price or $.85/gallon, and compare it with the price of soy meal over a 10-year period, with an average 44% oil content, the price of biodiesel from 1981 to 1991 could have cost less than #2 diesel for 8 out of 10 years. In addition to the fuel, you will also have a left-over feedstock with a 10% residual oil content, worth about $30 to $35/ton.

Studies by the University of Idaho of rapeseed oil and safflower oil for fuel showed that safflower oil could be produced at about $1.35, and that exhaust emissions could be reduced by about 65%. It has been suggested that with some minor economic or tax incentives, biodiesel would quickly become a very attractive fuel, one which could compete with #2 diesel on the open market, and at the same time making a significant contribution to reducing pollution.

Although in the USA, soybeans would be the logical candidate for making biodiesel, each country and each climate can and should explore their own agricultural resources for fuel production. In some areas peanuts, or corn, safflower thistle, or sunflowers will be the predominant fuel crop.

Here in Colorado, you seed growers already know what you can grow, and if you as a group formed a farmer-owned biodiesel fuel co-op which centralized your fuel production in one modern, efficient facility, then it wouldn't be long before other such co-ops sprang up in other parts of the country.

First of all, you wouldn't have to compete with #2 diesel on the open market, as you all have your own requirements for diesel fuel. Secondly, you will still have a high-protein feed by-product which, with the oil removed, won't go rancid, so it can command a premium price in the feed industry. So you get your commodity price and fuel, as well.

In just three or four years, we are again going to see some kind of minor crisis which provokes another dramatic price increase in petroleum, and you could by then be enjoying complete energy and financial independence.

I really believe that the farmers of this generation have the tools, the materials, and the technology to take on the big oil companies. We just need to spread the word that this is a do-able technology, that it makes sense, and that we can make a change which makes a difference. This is a business which can create profits and at the same time reduce pollution.

Plus, if we recycle the organic waste products back into the soil like our fathers' generation has always done, we also create a sustainable future for our children.

© 1994, 1999 Robert E. Warren

Make your own biodiesel
Mike Pelly's recipe
Biodiesel in Hong Kong
Nitrogen Oxide emissions
Biodiesel resources on the Web
Do diesels have a future?

Robert Warren's still
Building the Charles 803 alcohol fuel still
Operation of an alcohol still
Fuel ethanol FAQ
Vegetable oil to replace diesel?
Four fuels for the future
Can you drink it?
Ethanol resources on the Web

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