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Gas and Biofuel – Research and Innovation

Previous articles have discussed various facets of biofuels, including production and intended usage. The need for an inexpensive, renewable fuel source has inspired research all over the world, and scientists are experimenting with creating biofuels from a wide range of organic material. This article presents additional information and provides an interesting look at a common drink, a hazardous waste product, and a common household appliance as possible sources of biofuel.

Coffee: Make an Extra Cup

Coffee drinkers are virtually beyond number and their habit has excellent potential as a source of energy, aside from the caffeine buzz. Researchers in Nevada working with waste coffee grounds established in 2008 that the grounds are an optimal source material for biofuels. After brewing, coffee grounds contain anywhere from 10-20% oil by weight. This is comparable to oils such as rapeseed, palm, and soybean, which are in widespread use as biodiesel stock.

Coffee growers, who produce roughly 16 billion pounds of coffee every year, support the world’s caffeine habit. Coffee beans are used for everything from regular and decaf coffee to cafe specialty drinks, and the waste grounds are generally disposed of either as garbage or compost. By calculating the amount of coffee produced with the percentage of oil present and losses incurred during fuel production, scientists estimate that a year’s worth of spent grounds could provide up to 340 million gallons of biodiesel.

The production process involves simply collecting waste coffee grounds and separating the oils from other components. After separation, 100% of the oil can be converted into biodiesel using an inexpensive process. As an added bonus, the remaining solids can be used to manufacture ethanol, providing an even larger boost to domestic fuel production. The final benefit of coffee-based fuel is that its antioxidant properties make it more stable than other forms of biodiesel.

While certain organic material lends itself to small-scale biofuel production, producing biodiesel from coffee would require a large-scale operation. It takes between 10-15 pounds of coffee grounds to produce one liter of biodiesel, and approximately triple that amount to create one full gallon of gas. The production process cost the research team roughly $1 per gallon to produce the fuel.

While this form of biodiesel remains largely in research, it’s a great excuse to enjoy a second (or third, or fourth) cup of coffee every day.

Motor Oil and Your Microwave

Few things could be considered a worse combination than used motor oil and a microwave, but a recent study presented during a meeting of the American Chemical Society breathes new life into a waste product. The scientists’ research demonstrates that used motor oil can be recycled into a gasoline-type fuel.

The world’s current production of waste motor oil stands at approximately 8 billion gallons every year, with the waste disposed of in varying ways. Some of it is recycled into lubricating oils, some is used as heating oil (a special furnace is required, please do not attempt this without the appropriate system), and some is simply disposed of as a hazardous waste product. The amount of waste oil we produce continues to increase as countries such as India and China, along with developing nations, add millions of new cars to the roads.

Researchers have experimented with several methods to produce gas from waste oil, the most promising method being a process called pyrolysis. In pyrolysis, oil is heated to an extreme temperature in the absence of oxygen. The process breaks the oil into gaseous and liquid components, leaving behind small amounts of solid material. At this point, the gases and liquids can be converted into diesel or regular gasoline.

Previous attempts at this process produced uneven heating, resulting in gases and liquids that researchers could not convert easily into any type of fuel. The new method of pyrolysis involves combining waste oil with microwave-absorbent material and heating it with microwaves. The even heating process produced more stable gas and liquid components, and the research team was able to convert approximately 90% of the waste oil into fuel.

The success of the microwave process demonstrates that we can recycle a valuable commodity into an equally valuable product. The research team suggests that the process is well suited to commercial venture and continues to refine the process.

Fuel Independence

As outlined by this and the other articles on biofuels, the United States has a vast supply of the materials needed to produce alternatives to regular gasoline and diesel fuel. Unfortunately, outside interests limit production of alternative fuels. While private companies can make such strong profits on petroleum-based products, there is little financial incentive to pursue production of anything else. Further limitations are caused due to the amount of money required to start up a fuel production company.

The optimal choice for an alternative fuel company would be a large oil corporation. A business of that size could address a number of issues ranging from the purchase of raw materials to distribution of the final product. The United States will eventually need to break its foreign oil habit, and corporations willing to make this shift will need to lead the way. We are restricted by their choice of product, and we need to encourage them to expand beyond their current foreign oil-based model.

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