International Biodiesel Day is celebrated annually on 10 August to commemorate the occasion in 10 August 1893 when Rudolf Diesel’s prime model, a single 10 ft (3.0 m) iron cylinder with a flywheel at its base, ran on its own power for the first time in Augsburg, Germany, fuelled by nothing but pea-nut Oil. Rudolf Diesel and the Otto Company also exhibited a small Diesel Engine at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 (Exposition Universelle) Which ran on arachide (ground-nut or pea-nut) oil and worked so smoothly that only a few people were aware of it. The engine was constructed for using mineral oil, and was then worked on vegetable oil without any alterations being made. The French Government at the time thought of testing the applicability to power production of the Arachide, or earth-nut, which grows in considerable quantities in their African colonies, and can easily be cultivated there.” Diesel himself later conducted related tests and appeared supportive of the idea. In a 1912 speech Diesel said, “the use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today but such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal-tar products of the present time.”
Biodiesel refers to a vegetable oil – or animal fat-based diesel fuel consisting of long-chain alkyl (methyl, ethyl, or propyl) esters. Transesterification of a vegetable oil was conducted as early as 1853 by Patrick Duffy, four decades before the first diesel engine became functional. Biodiesel is typically made by chemically reacting lipids (e.g., vegetable oil, soybean oil, animal fat (tallow) with an alcohol producing fatty acid esters. Biodiesel is meant to be used in standard diesel engines and is thus distinct from the vegetable and waste oils used to fuel converted diesel engines. Biodiesel can be used alone, or blended with petrodiesel in any proportions. Biodiesel blends can also be used as heating oil. The National Biodiesel Board (USA) defines “biodiesel” as a mono-alkyl ester.
Despite the widespread use of petroleum-derived diesel fuels, interest in vegetable oils as fuels for internal combustion engines was reported in several countries during the 1920s and 1930s and later during World War II. Belgium, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Japan and China were reported to have tested and used vegetable oils as diesel fuels during this time. Some operational problems were reported due to the high viscosity of vegetable oils compared to petroleum diesel fuel, which results in poor atomization of the fuel in the fuel spray and often leads to deposits and coking of the injectors, combustion chamber and valves. Attempts to overcome these problems included heating of the vegetable oil, blending it with petroleum-derived diesel fuel or ethanol, pyrolysis and cracking of the oils.
On 31 August 1937, G. Chavanne of the University of Brussels, Belgium was granted a patent for a “Procedure for the transformation of vegetable oils for their uses as fuels” (fr. “Procédé de Transformation d’Huiles Végétales en Vue de Leur Utilisation comme Carburants”) Belgian Patent 422,877. This patent described the alcoholysis (often referred to as transesterification) of vegetable oils using ethanol (and mentions methanol) in order to separate the fatty acids from the glycerol by replacing the glycerol with short linear alcohols. This appears to be the first account of the production of what is known as “biodiesel” today. More recently, in 1977, Brazilian scientist Expedito Parente invented and submitted for patent, the first industrial process for the production of biodiesel. This process is classified as biodiesel by international norms, conferring a “standardized identity and quality. No other proposed biofuel has been validated by the motor industry.” As of 2010, Parente’s company Tecbio is working with Boeing and NASA to certify bioquerosene (bio-kerosene), another product produced and patented by the Brazilian scientist.
Research into the use of transesterified sunflower oil, and refining it to diesel fuel standards, was initiated in South Africa in 1979. By 1983, the process for producing fuel-quality, engine-tested biodiesel was completed and published internationally. An Austrian company, Gaskoks, obtained the technology from the South African Agricultural Engineers; the company erected the first biodiesel pilot plant in November 1987, and the first industrial-scale plant in April 1989 (with a capacity of 30,000 tons of rapeseed per annum). Throughout the 1990s, plants were opened in many European countries, including the Czech Republic, Germany and Sweden. France launched local production of biodiesel fuel (referred to as diester) from rapeseed oil, which is mixed into regular diesel fuel at a level of 5%, and into the diesel fuel used by some captive fleets (e.g. public transportation) at a level of 30%. Renault, Peugeot and other manufacturers have certified truck engines for use with up to that level of partial biodiesel; experiments with 50% biodiesel are underway. During the same period, nations in other parts of the world also saw local production of biodiesel starting up: by 1998, the Austrian Biofuels Institute had identified 21 countries with commercial biodiesel projects. 100% biodiesel is now available at many normal service stations across Europe.