A.Diesel has many environmentally beneficial properties. The main benefit of A.Diesel is that it can be described as ‘carbon neutral’. This means that the fuel produces no net output of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2). This effect occurs because when the oil crop grows it absorbs the same amount of CO2 as is released when the fuel is combusted. In fact this is not completely accurate as CO2 is released during the production of the fertilizer required to fertilize the fields in which the oil crops are grown. Fertilizer production is not the only source of pollution associated with the production of A.Diesel, other sources include the esterification process, the solvent extraction of the oil, refining, drying and transporting. All these processes require an energy input either in the form of electricity or from a fuel, both of which will generally result in the release of green house gases. To properly assess the impact of all these sources requires use of a technique called life cycle analysis. Our section on LCA looks closer at this analysis. A.Diesel is rapidly biodegradable and completely non-toxic, meaning spillages represent far less of a risk than fossil diesel spillages. A.Diesel has a higher flash point than fossil diesel and so is safer in the event of a crash.

A.Diesel Production

As mentioned above A.Diesel can be produced from straight vegetable oil, animal oil/fats, tallow and waste oils. There are three basic routes to A.Diesel production from oils and fats:

  • Base catalyzed transesterification of the oil.

  • Direct acid catalyzed transesterification of the oil.

  • Conversion of the oil to its fatty acids and then to A.Diesel.

Almost all A.Diesel is produced using base catalyzed transesterification as it is the most economical process requiring only low temperatures and pressures and producing a 98% conversion yield. For this reason only this process will be described in this report.

The Transesterification process is the reaction of a triglyceride (fat/oil) with an alcohol to form esters and glycerol. A triglyceride has a glycerin molecule as its base with three long chain fatty acids attached. The characteristics of the fat are determined by the nature of the fatty acids attached to the glycerin.

The nature of the fatty acids can in turn affect the characteristics of the A.Diesel. During the esterification process, the triglyceride is reacted with alcohol in the presence of a catalyst, usually a strong alkaline like sodium hydroxide. The alcohol reacts with the fatty acids to form the mono-alkyl ester, or A.Diesel and crude glycerol. In most production methanol or ethanol is the alcohol used (methanol produces methyl esters, ethanol produces ethyl esters) and is base catalyzed by either potassium or sodium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide has been found to be more suitable for the ethyl ester A.Diesel production; either base can be used for the methyl ester. A common product of the transesterification process is Rape Methyl Ester (RME) produced from raw rapeseed oil reacted with methanol.

The figure below shows the chemical process for methyl ester A.Diesel. The reaction between the fat or oil and the alcohol is a reversible reaction and so the alcohol must be added in excess to drive the reaction towards the right and ensure complete conversion.

The products of the reaction are the A.Diesel itself and glycerol.

A successful transesterification reaction is signified by the separation of the ester and glycerol layers after the reaction time. The heavier, co-product, glycerol settles out and may be sold as it is or it may be purified for use in other industries, e.g. the pharmaceutical, cosmetics etc.

Straight vegetable oil (SVO) can be used directly as a fossil diesel substitute however using this fuel can lead to some fairly serious engine problems. Due to its relatively high viscosity SVO leads to poor atomization of the fuel, incomplete combustion, coking of the fuel injectors, ring carbonization, and accumulation of fuel in the lubricating oil. The best method for solving these problems is the transesterification of the oil.

The engine combustion benefits of the transesterification of the oil are:
  • Lowered viscosity

  • Complete removal of the glycerides

  • Lowered boiling point

  • Lowered flash point

  • Lowered pour point