The short-term cost of petroleum-based fuel is erratic and unpredictable, but over the long-term, it has been on a steady upward trend that has been slowly eating away at the pocket books and bank accounts of every American. As the reality of peak oil hits and perpetual war in the Middle East turns from worst-case scenario to indisputable fact, supply shortages will cause gasoline prices to soar to the point where oil for our furnaces and gasoline for our vehicles will no longer be affordable for the average consumer.
Alternative fuel development at the commercial level in the U.S. holds some promise. However, the world has become so dependent on petroleum products as a fuel source that the chances of the modern transportation system being somehow salvaged through a seamless transition to alternative fuels that can be produced entirely on home soil seems remote. Switching to a transportation system that does not rely on fossil fuels is certainly possible, in theory; but for a world-historical revolution of this magnitude to occur, it is likely that the existing order will have to crash and burn first and that new and better ways will have to be constructed somehow from the recycled refuse of a society and an economy left in ruins.
The future we are facing collectively does seem grim indeed. But fortunately, the “can-do” spirit of the American people, and of people in general, is strong and not easily repressed. Those who realize the modern world order is doomed are already taking steps to protect themselves by becoming more independent and self-sufficient, and also by learning how to live more consciously and intentionally so that they will never be caught unprepared for any sudden crisis or development.
Most people are so used to heading off to the gas station to fill their cars or trucks that it would never occur to them that there might be another option. But demonstrating that irrepressible “can-do” spirit, enterprising souls motivated by pure off-the-grid sensibilities (and a disgust with the price of gas, no doubt) have developed an ingenious method for manufacturing usable biologically based fuel right at home, thereby giving interested parties the opportunity to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels products that must be shipped in from far away and are controlled by a monopolistic industry that fixes prices as casually as the rest of us fix toast for breakfast. Biodiesel produced in factories may very well be a part of a new and improved mass transportation system down the line, but home brewers are making it a part of the greater off-the-grid movement in the here and now, and with a small investment of money and a reasonable investment of time and effort, you too can begin manufacturing high-quality fuel right on your very own homestead.
The Biodiesel Biography
Biodiesel is vegetable oil that, through a chemical process, has been transformed into a combustible fuel that can be used to power any machine that runs on diesel or conventional fuel oil, including cars, trucks, tractors, lawnmowers, boats, buses, electrical generators, and oil-burning furnaces. When the first diesel engine was introduced in 1900 by German inventor Rudolph Diesel, it was actually powered by peanut oil, so the basic idea behind the biodiesel concept is nothing new. But by the time diesel engines went into mass production, cheap oil had conquered the world, and biodiesel was essentially forgotten as petro-diesel flooded the market.
Commercial production of biodiesel in the U.S. began in earnest in the 1990s, but unfortunately the industry is currently controlled by powerful agribusiness companies, which have hijacked the supply chain and essentially forced producers to rely on soybeans as their source of vegetable oil. This is a distortion of true market forces because soy is quite inefficient when used for this process, but because that is where the profits are in corporate farming, soy is the only option being seriously pursued in biodiesel production at the macro level. It would require 2.8 billion acres planted with soy to make enough biodiesel to meet all U.S. transportation needs – only 72 million acres are currently in cultivation, so terra-forming the moon might be necessary to make that happen. As things stand now, it seems obvious that large-scale production of biodiesel will never be able to meet more than a fraction of our overall fuel needs, if we expect to continue at the same standard of living.
But economy begins at home, and the problems of a society on a collision course with a dark destiny should not be confused with the capacity of off-the-gridders, homesteaders, and plucky pioneers of all stripes to take control of their own fates and to manage their own lives more effectively than participation in a dysfunctional mass culture normally would allow. Homemade biodiesel can potentially fill a respectable percentage of a household’s fuel needs, and if you are currently running diesel engines or are considering the possibility of doing so in the near future, you can definitely save money and enhance your self-sufficiency if you are willing to take a how-to course on this fascinating subject.
Yes, You Really Can Make Your Own Biodiesel
Before we begin with a short description of how home biodiesel brewing works, it is important to emphasize that what we are offering here is only an overview or brief introduction to the process. If you decide this is actually something you would like to try, you will need to do some real in-depth research into the subject, and it would be an excellent idea to visit some websites or watch some of the videos that are available online to get more detailed information about how to do it right. As you will see, making biodiesel at home is really not difficult at all, but the process is potentially dangerous to everyone on your homestead because of the toxicity, flammability, and instability of the chemicals that you will be using. No one should be scared away from biodiesel by this warning, however, because if the proper precautions are taken, you should be able to start producing fuel very safely and without worry.
To make biodiesel on your homestead, in addition to a source of vegetable oil you will also need wood alcohol (methane is used most commonly) and a catalyst that can set off the necessary chemical reactions that drive the process. Sodium hydroxide, which is more popularly known as lye, is frequently chosen to play the catalyst role.
A mixture that includes one gallon of alcohol for every five gallons of vegetable oil and an amount of catalyst equal to about one-tenth of one percent of the oil you will be attempting to alchemize should do the trick, although specific recommendations may vary slightly depending on whose recipe or methodology you are attempting to follow. The vegetable oil could come from an original freshly harvested source, but in most cases, home brewers acquire used vegetable oil in mass quantities from restaurants that would otherwise be forced to discard it as waste.
Before beginning, it will be necessary to put the used vegetable oil through a filtering process that will remove any debris or food particles. The simplest way to do this is to put it in plastic barrels or pails, cover it with dark plastic, and let it sit outside in the sun for a day or two, where the heat will cause the oil to float to the top and its pollutants to sink to the bottom. Once all the gunk and junk that collects on the bottom of the pails has been drained out, the cleaner vegetable oil left behind can then be poured through a filter to be further purified.
To begin making biodiesel, drums, barrels, tanks, or other suitable containers will need to be provided to hold the oil-alcohol-catalyst mixture, but once they are it is simply a matter of mixing the methane and the lye together first and then pouring the chemical compound created into the purified vegetable oil so the whole witch’s brew can begin to bubble.
If the solution is agitated continuously for several hours and then left to stand for a day or so, the reaction should be complete, and you should have usable biodiesel to harvest. The most common method to initiate the chemical metamorphosis, however, is through the application of heat. The chemical stew should be heated to temperatures exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit but not exceeding 148 degrees, which is the boiling point of methanol. The reaction should proceed relatively quickly when heat is applied, but of course you will need to keep the heat turned on for a longer period of time depending on how large of a supply of oil plus additives you are attempting to process.
When the reaction is complete, you will be left with two byproducts: glycerin, which can be used to make soap, and methyl esters, which is the chemical moniker for biodiesel. It will be necessary to let the prepared solution sit for eighteen hours so the lighter biodiesel can rise to the top, after which the glycerin will be drained out through the bottom of the tank.
Before the biodiesel is ready to actually use, you will need to mix it with a generous amount of water that will naturally “wash” away any molecules of glycerin, alcohol, or catalyst that might still be contaminating your solution. But once this step has been completed, there is really nothing left to do – you will now have a reliable supply of diesel fuel that can be used to run your automobiles (those that use diesel only, of course), farm machinery, electrical generator, oil-burning furnace (don’t overlook this option!), buses, or train, if you are lucky enough to have your very own diesel-powered locomotive on the property (which admittedly is unlikely, but it is very cool to think about).
Biodiesel: The Pros and the Cons
You might have the impression at this point that home-brewed biodiesel is the cat’s meow with the cherry on top; or, conversely, you may be extremely skeptical about the practicality of the whole concept. But before you summarily reject the idea of making your own biodiesel, or on the other hand, before you dive headlong into the deep end of the biodiesel pool (metaphorically speaking obviously, as you wouldn’t want to do that for real), you need to take a full accounting of the pros and cons of this type of fuel.
First, lets look at the pros:
- Home-brewed biodiesel will work in any type of modern diesel engine or as a replacement in any machine that burns fuel oil.
- The costs for producing biodiesel at home – with used vegetable oil acquired for free – usually ranges somewhere between 50 cents and $1 per gallon with all inputs factored in.
- Even if you can’t produce enough to run a machine exclusively on biodiesel, what you have can be mixed with petro-diesel or home heating oil in any proportion and still deliver excellent results.
- Biodiesel is not a hazardous material, and it can be stored and even transported without concern.
- Biodiesel is an excellent lubricant that will help to extend engine life.
- With a little ingenuity and a good source of information on how to go about doing it (which is easy to find online), you can build your own biodiesel-making apparatus using recycled parts and inexpensive materials for as little as $150.
But we must also acknowledge the cons:
- Biodiesel works in modern diesel engines, but not in anything made before about 1994, where it can cause rubber parts to break down and leak.
- Most people who home brew this stuff use recycled vegetable oil because using new oil made from a crop such as canola, sunflowers, mustard, or peanuts would drive up the cost significantly. (The idea of making biodiesel at home with original crops would represent the height of self-sufficiency, but there is a good reason why you don’t find a lot of inspiring testimony out there from people who have actually tried to do this.)
- While biodiesel may not be dangerous, the chemicals used to make it are, to the nth degree, which is why all sorts of safety equipment (goggles, heavy rubber gloves, thick aprons, respirators, explosion-proof electrical fixtures, etc.) will need to be purchased and used if you are going to handle them safely.
- It is nice that biodiesel can be stored without worries about its toxicity or flammability, but it must be stored inside during the winter because it will begin to gel and coagulate at much higher temperatures than petro-diesel.
- In the wintertime, it will not be possible to use a mixture that has more than 20 percent biodiesel to run a vehicle because of the gelling problem just referenced.
- Biodiesel dissolves the sludge that builds up inside engines that have been using petro-diesel, which is beneficial for the engine but will cause fuel filters to clog frequently.
- If you are not up for the DIY approach, buying a new biodiesel home manufacturing unit could cost you more than $2,000.
So Is Biodiesel Right For You?
Anyone interested in making biodiesel at home should harbor no illusions. Most likely it will only be worth the trouble if you can secure a reliable supply of used vegetable oil, which means that the practice will not leave you quite as self-sufficient and dependent on your own means as you might prefer. But if you are looking for a way to reduce your reliance on fossil fuels while saving money and learning skills that can increase your overall capacity for independence, making your own biodiesel for use in your vehicles, furnace, generator, lawn mower, or boat is one of the better – and simpler – ways to do it.
Biodiesel production at the industrial scale is not particularly efficient and will definitely not save society from paying the consequences of its overreliance on oil. But making your own biodiesel at home will allow you to increase your personal efficiency, and it will give you knowledge that could come in handy down the line when the petroleum really hits the fan. If you have anything at all that runs on diesel, you should consider at least experimenting with biodiesel home brewing, perhaps in collaboration with neighbors, friends, or family so that you can share the costs and the work involved.
With a cooperative approach, you won’t have to invest much money at all if you make your own production apparatus and are able to get used vegetable oil for free, so you really would have everything to gain and nothing to lose by giving it a try.