Vegetable Oil—The New Fuel?

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Chemical Modification

Like all vegetable oils, soybean oil is made up of what are scientifically known as triglyceride molecules, which under a microscope look like the capital letter E, said Adhvaryu. These molecules are very similar in structure and contain multiple double bonds.

When these molecules containing double bonds are exposed to oxygen from the air and high temperatures, they readily condense together, oxidize and sometimes break apart. At cold temperatures the molecules easily stack together, forming little crystals that join together, eventually rendering the liquid oil a mass of solidified gunk.

What Adhvaryu and his colleagues did was chemically alter the symmetrical structure of the molecules so that they no longer consist of multiple double bonds and are also unable to stack together at cold temperatures.

The result is an inedible vegetable oil product that is more stable at both hot and cold temperatures, which is a key requirement for using it as a stand-alone engine oil, industrial fluid, and specialty grease. In addition, the chemical modification also improves the oil's lubricity.

"In due course of time, five or six years of time, there is going to be a major, major demand for these kinds of fluids," said Adhvaryu.

In addition to use in motor oils, he says veggie oil and its derivatives have a wide range of industrial applications, including hydraulic fluids, lubricants for heavy machinery, and functional fluids for processing metals.

Environmental Benefits

Advocates for the use of vegetable oils say they are easier on the environment because they are much more biodegradable than conventional, petroleum-based oils. When spilt or disposed of on the ground, vegetable oil will decompose by upwards of 98 percent. Petroleum based products only decompose 20 to 40 percent, said Adhvaryu.

Additionally, vegetable oils are a renewable resource. When supplies are low, more crops such as soybeans and corn can be planted to make up the shortfall, which is an added bonus to agricultural economies, according to the NCAUR Researchers. Petroleum, on the other hand, is a finite resource.

Ford says that one of the common arguments he hears about the use of vegetable-based lubricants and biofuels is that there are currently not enough of them to meet the demand for fuels and lubricants.

"I always answer them by saying, 'guess what, we don't have enough petroleum either,'" he said. "We didn't leave the stone age because we ran out of stones; we would be foolish to wait until we run out of petroleum to begin creating an alternative fuel based infrastructure."

A switch to vegetable-derived oils would also preserve finite petroleum resources for other uses, such as the manufacture of plastics, said Ford.

"Conservation should not just be reserved for baby seals," he said. "We need to conserve the sticky black stuff too. Why burn petroleum and poison our air when we're going to need it for computers, auto parts, and CDs?"

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