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French Fried Fuel
April 01, 1999

From the french fry capital of the world comes a really tasty demonstration of the potential of alternative fuels. An 18-wheeler diesel truck--part of french fry giant JR Simplot Company’s fleet-- has just completed 200,000 miles running on a fuel made with used french fry oil. It’s not just a gimmick, say researchers. "Biodiesel" fuel blends made from new vegetable oils and alcohols, while less polluting than conventional diesel, are also much more expensive. One way to cut the cost may be to make biodiesel from used oil, rather than new. Idaho scientists set out to prove it could be done with a resource the state has in abundance, used cooking oil from french fry production.

Chuck Peterson, Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of Idaho, cooked up the project. "We have a lot of french-fry plants and those plants generate some used vegetable oil," Peterson explains. "The cost of that used vegetable oil then would be less than purchasing new oil. The JR Simplot plant is a very unique place in that it not only has used vegetable oil but it also has alcohol production, an ethanol production plant on-site. To make biodiesel the two 2 major components are vegetable oil and alcohol. so both of those were available right there in one location."

The Simplot semi ran on a 50-percent blend of french fried biodiesel and conventional diesel. Twenty-percent and higher blends of biodiesel and standard diesel were recently recognized as an alternative fuel by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Biodiesel-diesel blends are less polluting in terms of air emissions and toxicity, and are less costly than 100-percent biodiesel. Some state and Federal fleets are already using such blends as part of their mandate to increase their use of alternative-fuel vehicles. Another potential market for biodiesel is in pristine environments where fuel spills or leaks might be devastating to wildlife.

The National Park Service is investigating using 100-percent biodiesel in fleet vehicles because it is not only cleaner-burning, but also, completely biodegradable. The "Truck-in-the-Park," a Dodge pickup truck driven by Yellowstone National Park personnel, has run more than 100,000 miles on 100-percent biodiesel made from rapeseed oil.


Biodiesel burns cleaner than diesel, combusting more completely to carbon dioxide, reducing air emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. Current emissions tests are inconclusive on whether nitrous oxides and particulate matter are also reduced, but the particulates produced from biodiesel are also less toxic and carcinogenic than those from petroleum-based diesel. Biodiesel and blends of biodiesel can be used in existing diesel vehicles with no modifications. Manufacturer warranties extend to engines burning biodiesel. Tests have shown, in fact, that the wear from biodiesel is less than that of regular diesel. An amendment to the Energy Policy Act passed late last year now gives state and Federal governments credits for meeting some of the mandated requirements for purchasing new alternative-fuel vehicles, allowing them to use 20-percent (B-20) or higher biodiesel blends in existing diesel vehicles. Pure biodiesel is completely biodegradable.

"You can use the biodiesel in much more environmentally sensitive areas, such as in marine environments or in a national park where if a spill were to occur, it would not become an ecological disaster," says Bob Fox, a scientist with the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. And as the Kyoto Agreements on greenhouse gases come into play, taxes on carbon and incentives for sequestering it could make biodiesel more economically attractive down the road.

"CO2 production with biodiesel is essentially the same as with diesel," Peterson. "The difference is that diesel fuel comes from a product that was sequestered. . . millions of years ago and so that CO2 is being released today, whereas the CO2 from biodiesel comes from a plant that is going to reabsorb the CO2 in the next growth cycle. So essentially we have a zero net effect of CO2 into the atmosphere by using biodiesel. As we look at this reduction of CO2 from the Kyoto agreement and other things the US has talked about, biodiesel could play a part in the reduction of greenhouse gases."


Even Peterson’s french fried biodiesel can’t compete with the price of conventional diesel. Raw materials costs alone, Peterson says, amounted to about $1.90 per gallon, "and this does not include state and Federal taxes," Peterson points out, add about 50 cents to the price of "whatever fluid you use to run your motor vehicle."

Biodiesel from new vegetable oils currently retails for from $3.00 to $3.30 a gallon. One way to cut the cost of biodiesel may be to recover valuable byproducts from its production more efficiently. Fox and his colleague Dan Ginosar at INEL, are researching new catalysts for producing less costly biodiesel that also results in a very high grade of glycerine, a valuable lubricant. "We’ve found a way to do this faster and cheaper and produce a much cleaner product," Ginosar says. "By doing that, we can take a biodiesel product that would be $3.00 per gallon to produce down to something that’s more in the 65-cents to a dollar per gallon region."

The current high cost is the reason even some biodiesel advocates view the foreseeable future of the fuel in the US as limited. "My personal opinion is biodiesel has to be used in places where it makes sense," Peterson says. Meanwhile, a small consortium of biodiesel manufacturers and farmers are aggressively optimistic. The National Biodiesel Board was a major lobbyist for getting B-20 approved as an alternative fuel, and is promoting its competition with diesel in not only fleets and parks, but also in public transportation and marine uses.

So do you pour leftover cooking oil into your gas tank?

No,-- don’t do this at home, says Peterson. Even pure oils such as new rapeseed oil must first be converted into an alkyl ester. The oil is reacted with an alcohol in the presence of a catalyst, such as potassium or sodium hydroxide, at 150 degrees Fahrenheit and 20 psi. The reaction mixture is typically made of 87% oil, 12% alcohol, and 1% catalyst. And when it comes to used french fry oil, producing and using it in colder climates such as Idaho is an even bigger challenge. "If you take used french fry oil and sit it on the table to cool down to room temperature, it goes solid," Peterson explains. "After you convert to biodiesel, it still has a pour point-- in other words, it will solidify—in the 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit range. So, if you used french fry oil as your fuel in a typical automobile, you would have a solid fuel in your tank!"

"Part of the project with Simplot was to handle it in such a way so it could be used in a diesel engine. The truck has a heating system on it that keeps the fuel at a temperature that will allow it to flow. All our storage tanks are heated, our pumps are heated. . . In the case of a Kenworth truck they sell those in AK as well as in the (continental) US so it has an Arctic Package on it. . . you can order direct from the factory. So we had to be aware we needed that and the truck had to have that on board."

Peterson says he has sometimes been contacted by "hobbyists interested in protecting the environment" about experimenting with biodiesel in their vehicles. He always warns them that they do so "at their own risk" -- including the risks associated with failing to pay your fuel taxes.

Elsewhere on the Web

"Over-the-Road" french fried fuel project , "Truck-in-thePark" demonstration, other projects and biodiesel links

Biodiesel is recognized as a fuel and a fuel additive with the Environmental Protection Agency and has been designated an "alternative fuel" by the US Department of Energy and the US Department of Transportation

Further, the fuel meets the standards of the California

National Biodiesel Board

Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory

Canada1s Greenfuels Biodiesel Information Centre

by Rogene M. Eichler West

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