A History of Biodiesel/Biofuels

Concurrent histories of the diesel engine and biofuels are necessary to understand the foundation for today's perception of biofuels, in general, and biodiesel, in particular. The history of biofuel is more political and economical than technological. The process for making fuel from biomass feedstock used in the 1800's is basically the same one used today. It was the influences of the industrial magnates during the 1920's and 1930's on both the politics and economics of those times that created the foundation for our perceptions today.

Transesterification of vegetable oils has been in use since the mid-1800's. More than likely, it was originally used to distill out the glycerin used for making soap. The "by-products" of this process are methyl and ethyl esters. Biodiesel is composed of these esters. Ethyle esters are grain based while methyl esters are wood based. They are the residues of creating glycerin, or vice versa. Any source of complex fatty acid can be used to create biodiesel and glycerin. Early on, peanut oil, hemp oil, corn oil, and tallow were used as sources for the complex fatty acids used in the separation process. Currently, soybeans, rapeseed (or its cousin, canola oil), corn, recycled fryer oil, tallow, forest wastes, and sugar cane are common resources for the complex fatty acids and their by-product, biofuels. Research is being done into oil production from algae, which could have yields greater than any feedstock known today.

Ethanol and methanol are two other familiar biofuels. Distillation of grain or wood, resulting in an ethyl or methyl alcohol, is the process by which these two biofuels are created. Ethanol, made from soybeans or corn, is a common biofuel in the midwest. The viscosity of the "original" biodiesel is lowered by adding approximately 10% methanol or ethanol to the biodiesel esters. Methanol is prefered because there has a more reliable and predictable biodiesel reaction. However, ethanal is less toxic and is always produced from a renewable resource. The lower viscosity brings biodiesl in line with the viscosity requirements of today's diesel engines, making it a major competitor to petroleum based diesel fuel.

In 1898, when Rudolph Diesel first demonstrated his compression ignition engine at the World's Exhibition in Paris, he used peanut oil - the original biodiesel. Diesel believed biomass fuel to be viable alternative to the resource consuming steam engine. Vegetable oils were used in diesel engines until the 1920's when an alteration was made to the engine, enabling it to use a residue of petroleum - what is now known as diesel #2.

Diesel was not the only inventor to believe that biomass fuels would be the mainstay of the transportation industry. Henry Ford designed his automobiles, beginning with the 1908 Model T, to use ethanol. Ford was so convinced that renewable resources were the key to the success of his automobiles that he built a plant to make ethanol in the Midwest and formed a partnership with Standard Oil to sell it in their distributing stations. During the 1920's, this biofuel was 25% of Standard Oil's sales in that area. With the growth of the petroleum industry Standard Oil cast its future with fossil fuels. Ford continued to promote the use of ethanol through the 1930's. The petroleum industry undercut the biofuel sales and by 1940 the plant was closed due to the low prices of petroleum.

Despite the fact that men such as Henry Ford, Rudolph Diesel, and subsequent manufacturers of diesel engines saw the future of renewable resource fuels, a political and economic struggle doomed the industry. Manufacturing industrialists made modifications to the diesel engines so they could take advantage of the extremely low prices of the residual, low-grade fuel now offered by the petroleum industry. The petroleum companies wanted control of the fuel supplies in the United States and, despite the benefits of biomass fuel verses the fossil fuels, they moved ahead to eliminate all competition.

One player in the biofuel, paper, textile, as well as many other industries, was hemp. Hemp had been grown as a major product in America since colonial times by such men as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and has had both governmental and popular support. Hemp's long history in civilization and the multitude of products that can be derived from this single plant has made it one of the most valuable and sustainable plants in the history of mankind. More importantly to the biofuel industry, hemp provided the biomass that Ford needed for his production of ethanol. He found that 30% hemp seed oil is usable as a high-grade diesel fuel and that it could also be used as a machine lubricant and an engine oil.

In the 1930's, the industrialists entered the picture. William Randolph Hurst, who produced 90% of the paper in the United States, Secretary of Treasury, Andrew Mellon, who was a major financial backer for the DuPont Company which ha d just patented the chemical necessary to process wood pulp into paper, the Rockefellers, and other "oil barons", who were developing vast empires from petroleum, all had vested interest in seeing the renewable resources industry derailed, the hemp industry eliminated, and biomass fuels derided. A campaign was begun to discredit hemp. Playing on the racism that existed in America, Hurst used his newspapers to apply the name "marijuana" to hemp. Marijuana is the Mexican word for the hemp plant. This application along with various "objective" articles began to create a fear. By 1937, these industrialists were able to parlay the fear they created into the Marijuana Tax Act. This law was the precursor to the demise of the hemp industry in the United States and the resultant long reaching effect on the biofuel, petroleum and many other industries. Within three years, Ford closed his biofuel plant.

At the beginning of World War II, the groundwork for our current perceptions of biofuels was in place. First, the diesel engine had been modified, enabling it to use Diesel #2. Second, the petroleum industry had established a market with very low prices for a residual product. Third, a major biomass industry was being shut down. Corn farmers were unable to organize at that time and provide a potential product to replace hemp as a biomass resource. Finally, industries with immense wealth behind them were acting in concert to push forward their own agenda - that of making more wealth for themselves. It is interesting to note that, during World War II, the United States government launched a slogan campaign, "Hemp for Victory", to encourage farmers to plant this discredited plant. Hemp made a multitude of indispensable contributions to the war effort. It is also interesting that, during World War II, both the Allies and Nazi Germany utilized biomass fuels in their machines. Despite its use during World War II, biofuels remained in the obscurity to which they had been forced.

Post war brought new cars and increased petroleum use. The petroleum industries quietly bought the trolley car systems that ran on electricity and were a major part of the transportation infrastructure system. They dismantled them. The trolleys were then sporadically replaced with diesel buses. These industries also pushed the government to build roads, highways, and freeways ("the ultimate solution to all our transportation and traffic problems"), so the automobiles they produced had a place to operate. This newly created transportation infrastructure was built with public funds, supporting and aiding the growth and strength of the petroleum, automobile, and related industries.

By the 1970's, we were dependent on foreign oil. Our supply of crude oil, as are all supplies of fossil fuels, was limited. In 1973 we experienced the first of two crises. OPEC, the Middle Eastern organization controlling the majority of the oil in the world, reduced supplies and increased prices. The second one came five years later in 1978. As was noted in the Diesel Engine section, automobile purchasers began to seriously consider the diesel car as a option. What is more, people began making their own biofuel. The potential of biofuels reentered the public consciousness.

The years since have brought many changes. Over 200 major fleets in the United States now run on biodiesl with entities such as the United States Post Office, the US Military, metropolitan transit systems, agricultural concerns, and school districts being major users. The biodiesel produced today can be used in unmodified diesel engines in almost all temperatures. It can be used in the individual automobile or larger engines and machines. The base biomass comes from soybeans and corn in the Midwest with tallow from the slaughter industries becoming a third source. Sugar cane provides the biomass for Hawaii and forest wastes are becoming a source in the Northwest. The embargo on Cuba halted oil importation depriving it of heating oil. They discovered that recycled fryer oil made a good biomass for fuel. Today, the fast food industry is the one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the United States and, in fact, the world. This industry can provide a major resource for biofuels - the recycled fryer oil. The Veggie Van traveled 25,000 miles around the United States on recycled fryer oil as did a group of women.

In Europe at this time, there is an option for biodiesel in many gas stations and vehicles that use diesel are readily available. Over 1000 stations in Germany alone offer biodiesel for their customers. Over 5% of all of France's energy uses are provided by biodiesel. Journey to Forever, a non-government organization, traveled from Hong Kong to Southern Africa producing their own biodiesel along the way and teaching the people of the small hamlets and villages how to make their own biofuel for use in their heaters, tractors, buses, automobiles, and other machines they might have.

We have the opportunity and the resources to shed our dependence on foreign oil, if we choose. As in the 1930's, we are faced with tremendous political and economic pressure creating similar challenges. The enormous influence of the petroleum industries and other industries that might be threatened and/or impacted by a resurgence of the renewable, biomass, and associated industries is being felt on all levels. One only needs to look to Washington to see how that pressure is being played out. It is a time of choice and one in which small actions can lead to greater impact. Biodiesel remains in the political and economic arena and is playing a part in this process as the awareness alternative fuel spreads through the consciousness of the general public.

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