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Biodiesel: A Brief History

Attempts to use vegetable oils as fuels are practically as old as internal combustion engines themselves. Although it is often claimed that Rudolph Diesel initially used peanut oil in his diesel engine, Knothe [Inform, v.12, Nov. 2001] points out that Diesel was describing a test conducted by another company.

In any case, the vegetable oil testing was considered to be a success and offered the potential for remote African colonies to be self-sufficient in fuel because seed oils were easier to produce than petroleum-based fuels.

Who invented biodiesel ?

According to Knothe, the earliest known use of alkyl esters appears in a Belgian patent granted in 1937 to G. Chavanne [#422,877]. This patent describes the use of ethyl esters of palm oil.

Not much more was done with alkyl esters until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when concerns about high petroleum prices motivated extensive experimentation with fats and oils as alternative fuels. Much of this research focused on directly using fats and oils, either as pure fuels or in blends with diesel fuel. In most cases, the oils led to excessive deposit formation and gradual engine degradation. Engines with indirect injection type combustion systems seemed to be more resistant to fuel problems than direct injection systems. Unfortunately, the fuel economy benefits of direct injection engines were making them the engine of choice for heavy duty applications.

Biodiesel in the United States

In the United States, much of the impetus for the development of biodiesel came from soybean farmers who saw it as a potential new market for soybean oil. In March 1992, a trade group of soybean farmers formed the National Soy Fuels Advisory Committee to investigate whether a potential market existed for biodiesel. This committee commissioned a study which concluded there were several large potential markets.

The National Soy Fuels Advisory Committee then disbanded and a new, not-for-profit, corporation, the National Soydiesel Development Board (NSDB), was formed in October 1992 with the objective of commercializing biodiesel. To broaden their support from other feedstock groups, the NSDB subsequently changed its name to the National Biodiesel Board (NBB). The NBB is funded by check-off funds from soybean farmers across the country and by dues paid by board members.

The NBB coordinated and financed much of the biodiesel-related research during the 1990s. This research culminated in the Health Effects testing needed to comply with the Environmental Protections Agency’s Fuel and Fuel Additives Registration program. These data will be discussed elsewhere in this tutorial.

For more about the history of biodiesel, see History of Biodiesel on eXtension.