Green energy
Biofuel offers a cash crop for farmers and a way for communities to take control of their energy needs while helping the environment and decreasing dependence on foreign oil.

By John Orr

Posted October 15, 2004: In the renaissance of renewable energy, biodiesel is pulling its own weight to the forefront of the transportation, heating, and agriculture industries. Both the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the USDA have led legislation and funding that recognizes the usefulness of biodiesel derived from plant oils. It is a clean-burning, carbon-neutral alternative to foreign petroleum fuel. Savvy farmers are growing rapeseed and soybean to produce fuel oil and nutritious animal feed. As we are faced with the imminent switch from petroleum to alternative energy sources, the logic of a biomass economy has got farmers adding new crops to their acreage, while biofuel production sights are sprouting up all over the world.

The facts about biodiesel

Biodiesel is an alternative to petroleum diesel that can be used in any diesel engine and in most home-heating oil furnaces with usually no conversions necessary. For those farmers looking for an ecological alternative to fossil fuels, biodiesel has become a popular fuel for greenhouses and tractors. The physical properties of biodiesel are closely related to petroleum diesel, so there are, at most, minor modifications needed to change your fuel from petroleum to biodiesel. The plant-derived fuel can be used as an additive by blending with conventional diesel at any ratio or may be used on its own. When a mixture of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel is used (a common formula), the fuel is called B20. B100 is fuel consisting of 100 percent plant-oil-derived biodiesel.

The advantages of using biodiesel include supporting domestically produced fuel that helps the agriculture sector and drastic decreases in the amount of polluting emissions. Some ‘do-it-yourselfers’ have gone completely off the petro-grid and no longer need to buy fuel; instead they have recycled waste restaurant vegetable oil into ‘grassoline.’ Manufacturing of biodiesel scales a wide spectrum, from backyard bucket operations to million gallons per year commercial operations.

For complete information about biodiesel emission, uses and more visit:

The DOE website at

The National Biodiesel Board at

Also check out parts 1 and 2 of our 3-part series on biofuel:

Part 1: Exploiting clean energy for profit
The outlook on the current biofuels industry

Part 2: Turning crops to ethanol fuel--on the road to energy independence
Though ethanol production has become a boondoggle at the national level, the technology offers both operating cost savings and a potential revenue stream for local farmers and communities

In the United States, biodiesel has proven to be an effective way for municipal fleets to cut emissions and clean up local air quality. Shipping companies use biodiesel to lower emissions and extend the life of their engines. Federal and state legislation has helped make biodiesel more competitive by offering tax incentives for using the renewable fuel. More and more state-run buildings are being heated with biodiesel; likewise, countless greenhouses are using the fuel to keep organic crops producing year ’round.


Biodiesel 101

If you take vegetable oil from canola, soybeans, sunflowers, poppies, algae, animal tallow or whatever else you can dream up, mix it with alcohol add a catalyst (lye, for instance), you create biodiesel and glycerin ( a useful product for soap making and other industries).

Vegetable oils and animal fats are known as triglycerides. The molecule is constructed of a glycerol backbone of three carbons with a fatty acid chain bonded to each of the carbons. Most plant oils consist of a mixture of fatty acids ranging in size from 12 to 20 carbons; 16 and 18 carbon chains are most common. Animal fats are similar to plant oil in that they are both hydrocarbon chains (carbon chains with only hydrogen bonded to each carbon). However, fats are made of saturated fatty acids, and oils are unsaturated fatty acids.

John Williamson, together with Trina and Steve Poummer, plans to turn this field of canola into biodiesel. They also have plans to build a still and turn sorghum into ethanol.
The unsaturated fatty acids in oils have double-bonded carbons in the chain, which makes the molecule kink or bend. The saturated fats are relatively straight molecules. At lower temperatures, the straight molecules of fats settle on top of each other and become densely compacted to form a solid, like butter. The kinked oil unsaturated fatty acids need lower temperatures to organize into a solid and therefore remain in a liquid state at room temperature. This is why in northern climates plant oils are preferred for biodiesel because buttery substances, made from saturated fatty acids, can’t be fuel injected into an engine.

As far as the fatty acids from plant oils and petroleum diesel molecules line up, they both are long chain hydrocarbons. A diesel engine doesn’t care which one you are burning. In fact, the engine’s creator Rudolf Diesel won the 1900 Grand Prix at the French Exposition for running his new invention on peanut oil. In Germany, Rudolf’s birthplace, farmers have been running diesel engines on vegetable oil ever since. One hundred years ago, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt had other ideas for the energy industry and helped forge an infrastructure based on the commodities they had better control over, black gold (oil, that is) and coal. So, until the late 1970s, the idea of using vegetable oils or animal fats for fuel was a little-known secret. Today, public awareness is probably the biggest hurdles to biofuels—that and OPEC.

In the engine chamber of diesels, the pistons are rigged to create a high amount of pressure. After the fuel has been injected and the chamber pressurized, air is added to the equation, then low-and-behold the oxygen in the air explodes with the hydrocarbons forming carbon dioxide and water and energy. The difference between gasoline engines explained in part two of the series and the diesel engine is the flammability of the fuel. Gasoline and ethanol are shorter carbon chains, and both are highly flammable; they are ignited in the engine by a spark plug. Diesel fuels like biodiesel are not flammable and are ignited instead by an increase in the chamber pressure. In fact, there is enough chamber pressure in a diesel engine that straight vegetable oil can be burned if modifications were made to ensure the oil was heated to the proper viscosity to get passed the fuel injectors. For more details on running your car on vegetable oil, check out:

Car manufactures have based there engine designs on petroleum fuel, but the need for alternatives has instigated an entire economic model pillared by agriculture. Time will tell, but vehicles could conceivably be manufactured to use vegetable oil as the standard fuel, much like the flex-fuel vehicles designed to run on ethanol. By using biofuels, proponents of this industry say (including famous family farm advocates Willie Nelson and Neil Young), we can eliminate the threat of global warming and air pollution caused by human technology. Check out the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) ideas on the carbohydrate economy .

Biofuel advocates point out that domestic crops could support the transportation needs of the United States and keep tax dollars and other resources from hemorrhaging out to petroleum-rich countries. In progressing from petroleum to biofuels there are major pitfalls to be avoided; as outlined in the first part of this series , there’s always the potential to jump directly from one pot of boiling oil into another.

An evolution in technology and business

Until recently, the popular understanding of our fuel economy has been limited to how much people pay at the gas pump. Tracking the money from distributors to shipping companies to drilling companies to corporate and political investments is less than exposed by media, even though our daily lives are so deeply connected to this economic cycle. Even less information has been publicized concerning the cycle of energy needed to perpetuate our dependency on fossil fuels. The fact is, we have been surviving on a false economy backed by dwindling supplies of our energy source.

The price for petroleum does not account for irreplaceable supplies of the resource. Furthermore, the cost is artificially low because it is backed by subsidies that keep U.S. citizens drunk on petroleum. Even though the biofuels industry is left to compete with the false petroleum economy, the sheer logic and health benefits of clean and renewable fuels have made the alternative fuels industry profitable. Furthermore, political uncertainties of oil producing countries are manifesting into higher prices for petroleum at the pumps.

To remain sustainable and cost competitive, the biofuels industry has to be energy efficient and rely on smart agricultural practices that do not deplete water tables or exhaust available lands. The most effective way to minimize energy costs and sustainably manage inputs and outputs of the entire biomass fuel system, from the seed to the fuel tank, would be to organize a regional cooperation between farmers, producers, restaurants, and distributors, says biodynamic canola oil farmer and biodiesel producer Stephen LeBlanc. “Once you understand that you can produce your own commodities, it makes more sense to support local your local community while respecting the natural world” says LeBlanc.

Farmers growing rapeseed, also known as canola, could co-op a regional seed press, and offer area restaurants premium oil at local prices to avoid too may middlemen and shipping costs. The seed meal left over is a highly nutritious animal feed ready to be sent a couple miles over to the local dairy or pig farm. Biodiesel producers could pick up the used oil from the restaurants and low-grade oil from farmers and process the biodiesel from free or low-cost oil. For small-scale producers, the sale of refined byproducts (glycerol, and fertilizing compounds) could increase profits by 50 percent or more. Profits from value-added products (such as soap) could make a substantial contribution to the farms profits.

Grow Your Own- Rapeseed for fuel

So now that you are convinced that growing seed crops for biodiesel and animal feed will be the perfect way for your farm to increase profits while saving the world, lets talk about growing. The following table lists popular oil producing crops and their theoretical yields (check out for more):

kg oil/ha
liters oil/ha
lbs oil/acre
Corn (maize)
Cashew nut
Linseed (flax)
Pumpkin seed
Mustard seed
Tung oil tree
Cocoa (cacao)
Opium poppy
Castor beans
Pecan nuts
Macadamia nuts
Brazil nuts
Oil palm

In northern climates, rapeseed is the highest-yielding crop, and, although it has particular growing needs, it is a manageable crop for fuel production. It is the preferred crop used to produce biodiesel in Europe because it has high yield and is easy to grow. The seed contains 30 percent to 40 percent oil, and the seed meal is high in nutritious proteins that make it an ideal supplement in animal feed. It is part of the Brassica family and will pollinate with mustard, radishes and turnips, so it needs to be isolated. The seed is uncomplicated to sow; it likes moisture and is broadcast on the surface, only 6 to 8 pounds of seed per acre is needed. Aphids and army worms pose a problem. And, because it is basically a tumble weed, wind damage could be a threat. There are a few diseases that the crop is susceptible to; these can be avoided by letting the hay winter over as mulch rather than tilling it into the soil. Disease resistant varieties are also available.

Vermont farmer John Williamson estimates how many more days it will be until his canola crop is ready for harvest.

Stephen Leblanc uses cow manure, green manure and crop rotation to ensure nutrient-rich soil for his rapeseed crop. Canola also likes about 20 to 40 pounds of available sulphur per acres (a light gypsum application, which is 15 percent to 17 percent sulphur, will do the trick.) Overall, canola demands less fertilizer than cereal crops or soybeans. The plant is very effective at shading out weeds so doesn’t require herbicides. Canola is also known to stimulate biotic activity in the soil, which makes it a good crop to add into your rotation.

John Williamson, known as the sugar man in his neck of the woods, grows sorghum and produces maple sugar and honey. He has noticed a substantial increase in the bee’s honey production, claiming “the bees really like the canola flowers.”

Harvesting canola requires winrowing as with hay, or with a sense for perfect timing you could direct combine your canola field. Veteran canola cultivator Percy Schmieser prefers to winrow his field when a quarter of the pods are brown. Once the harvest dries up completely, the pods will shatter in a combine and the seeds will easily be collected.

The oil is pressed from the seed. The remaining meal, if it is organic, can be sold for $250 for about 1200 pounds, or an acre’s worth of seed meal. Organic canola oil can be sold to food co-ops and health-food stores for up to $75 for five gallons (convention canola oil goes for approximately $30 for five gallons).

Just do it: Tips to make your own fuel

Making biodiesel that is ready to use in your engine is a relatively simple process that requires some precautions, but nothing to deter the mechanically inclined. In order to produce American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) quality fuel, there are several purifying steps that are added to a processor easily enough. Joshua Tickell has written the bible of making biodiesel “From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank” (check out ). The book provides sturdy methods for getting started.

I teamed up with Scott Gordon, a chemistry professor at the University of Vermont, and we gradually came up with our own recipe while offering students great hands-on lab projects. To make biodiesel, vegetable oil is mixed with alcohol and a catalyst; usually a base, like lye. The batch is mixed for about an 1 ½ hours, then allowed to settle. The glycerin, base, alcohol and other byproducts will settle to a lower phase; the biodiesel is a golden fluid floating on the top.

In order to get used to working with the chemicals and being certain you are taking the proper safety precautions, it is best to start off small, such as on the order of one liter. You can quickly graduate from buckets to 50-gallon processors and beyond, but it is always wise to begin with baby steps.

The major steps include:

  • Gathering the oil
  • Titrating the oil
  • Processing the batch
  • Purifying the biodiesel
  • Distributing the fuel

The oil can be collected from restaurants, which are usually more than happy to have their waste oil removed at little to no cost (it saves them from paying the waste-removal company a hefty fee). We have given restaurants 40 gallon hard plastic containers that we recycle for a local olive distributor. As far as shipping and handling of the oil, the Department of Transportation does not have any stringent requirements. At some point before the oil lands into your mix tank, it should be filtered. We started out using two layers of steel window screen, just enough to keep French fries out of the mix.

Once you have gathered your main substrate, it is necessary to find out the quality of the oil. When food is cooked in the oil, which is usually canola or soybean oil, free fatty acids from the chicken fingers, French fries, etc. accumulate in the used oil. The free fatty acids will react with the base you put in to catalyze the biodiesel reaction. By titrating, you can determine how much base you need to add to neutralize the acids and still have enough to catalyze the biodiesel reaction, which in an organic chemistry book is called transesterification. Titration is a basic chemistry procedure where an acid is neutralized with a base and an indicator, usually phenyl pthalein, changes colors at the neutralization point. By knowing how much base is used to titrate an unknown amount of acid in your oil sample, you can use simple calculation to assess how much base you need in your reaction.

The reaction tank should be polyethylene plastic or stainless steel, for trial runs most buckets will work fine. We eventually switched to using conical tanks that allow for proper drainage so we could take advantage of gravity to move our fuel around. Copper, and PVC are not recommended for your plumbing; they will last awhile but eventually corrode. The methanol and base are caustic and corrosive, so polyethylene and stainless steel are the only sure bet for long-term plumbing (brass will give you a good run for your money and is a worthwhile alternative to save you money until you are ready to set up your 10-year plan.)

The alcohol you use can either be methanol or ethanol; both can be made from biomass or bought from nearby chemical supply stores. Store-bought alcohol will most likely be derived from petroleum. We have decided to buy our methanol until we have established our biodiesel market and can set up an ethanol still. The alcohol is flammable, including the fumes. The fumes are heavy and will fall to the floor but will escape out the top of your processor. The area around the tank should remain spark-proof. It is not a good idea to put a motorized mixer directly over your tank—I have heard disaster stories. Tickell recommends a pulley system, but explosion-proof motors are another option.

Heating the mixing tank is a good ideas; up to 40 ºC is recommended and will help you achieve a complete reaction. Methanol boils at 60 ºC and ethanol at around 70 ºC. You don’t want to get close to the boiling point of the alcohol because it is not necessary and you will create hazardous fumes. The alcohol is close to 20 percent of the mixture. You need to have an excess to make the reaction work, but after you settle out the byproduct it is a good idea to try to recapture the excess alcohol, as it is one of the biggest expenses in the process.

The Long Trail Biofuels and Green Technologies biodiesel processor at the University of Vermont. The reactor turns 50 gallons of used vegetable oil into ASTM- grade Biodiesel.

The catalyst is usually a base, either lye (which is NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH). We like to use KOH because we can turn the byproduct into fertilizer, whereas the sodium in lye is less favorable to crops than potassium. We started off using Tickell’s numbers for the catalyst but eventually cut back on the amount of base. The base is mixed with the alcohol until it is fully dissolved. The alcohol and base are not friendly to your eyes, skin or lungs, so wear glasses, protective gloves and work in a well-ventilated area without the threat of sparks or open flames.

The alcohol and dissolved base are then mixed with the oil and agitated for one to two hours. After mixing, the solution is settled for eight hours. Two phases appear. The top should be your golden biodiesel. At this point the fuel can be filtered through a fuel filter and used in an engine or furnace. However, to meet ASTM specification, residual methanol, glycerol and base should be water washed out.

The byproduct, which settles on the bottom, contains glycerol, base, methanol, unreacted vegetable oil, free fatty acids, and whatever particles were floating in the used oil. We use the byproduct to clean our equipment; it makes a great industrial soap. We also purify the glycerol by vacuum distillation. A portion of our waste is neutralized and sold to a farmer who puts it in his methane digester to help feed the anaerobes that turn cow manure into methane gas used for fuel.

Biodiesel is as biodegradable as sugar and less toxic than salt. It does not require any major shipping or handling precautions, as it is not flammable or corrosive. In fact, the DOT and EPA treat biodiesel basically like vegetable oil. Our processor designs recycle all of the inputs and compost the waste, so we don’t have to worry about affluent waste or septic regulations.

For more information on making your own fuel visit:

Energy Independence

We have a golden opportunity to put the power of our communities in the hands of the local farmers. The biofuels industry is definitely growing and quickly turning into big business. But as we have seen in the past, the interest of the people concerned about clean water, air, is not the main priority of profit-based corporations relying on economic ‘growth’ and short-term gains. As John Williamson put it “Without fuel we would have no food crops, so we should have control of it.”

It wasn’t long after I began working with biodiesel that I met a number of other people in my rural agriculture community doing the same thing. People began filling vital niches within the growing industry. Today, the Vermont Biofuels Association ( gathers farmers, producers, distributors, economists, entrepreneurs, organizers, waste-disposal companies and lobbyists for monthly meetings. By working together, our community has its sites set on controlling its own fuel destiny instead of having it dictated to us. The entire community depends on fuel, and we have the opportunity to make the industry a strong thread between all of our diverse sectors. With some investigative and clever business planning and community organizing, you’d be surprised at how attainable a local, clean and renewable fuel industry is.

John Orr is a biologist, ecological designer, organic farmer and co-founder of Long Trail Biofuels. He is currently working several projects including: algae biodiesel systems; small-scale, closed-loop biodiesel processing; and bioplastics.