Cheaper Veggie Diesel May Change the Way We Drive

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 15, 2005

Japanese scientists may have found a cheaper and more efficient way to produce "biodiesel." The renewable, vegetable oil-based fuel can be used in conventional diesel engines, which are found in about 2 percent of cars currently sold in the U.S. and in about 40 percent in Europe.

The breakthrough could be just in time—industry experts say that demand for the cleaner, greener fuel is on the rise.

Any vegetable oil can become fuel, but not until its fatty acids are converted to chemical compounds known as esters. Currently the acids used to convert the fatty acids are prohibitively expensive.

Michikazu Hara, of the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Yokohama, Japan, and his colleagues have used common, inexpensive sugars to form a recyclable solid acid that does the job on the cheap. Their research is reported in last week's issue of the journal Nature.

"We estimate the cost of the catalyst to be one-tenth to one-fiftieth that of conventional catalysts," Hara said.

The breakthrough could provide cost savings on a massive scale, he said, because the technique could fairly easily make the transition from the lab to the refinery—if interest warrants.

"We have developed this material for large-scale chemical production," Hara said. "Unfortunately, interest in biodiesel in Japan is not higher than in the U.S. and Europe."

Biodiesel Boom?

Though it has been historically limited, U.S. interest in the fuel appears to be rising rapidly.

"We are anticipating 75 million gallons [284 million liters] of production in 2005, and that's triple last year's production," said Jenna Higgins, a spokesperson for the National Biodiesel Board, a biodiesel-industry trade group.

Higgins cites several reasons for the surge, including government incentives and the rising cost and sometimes short supply of conventional diesel fuel.

A Minnesota law, which took effect September 29, mandates that virtually all diesel sold in the state has to be at least 2 percent biodiesel—provided local producers can match the demand.

Continued on Next Page >>


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