Speaker assesses the benefits of biodiesel

Michael Schreiber

Robert Brylski, instructor of renewable energy at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Mid-State Technical College, gave a presentation titled “Biodiesel: Transitional Transportation Fuel” Monday, Nov. 17. The presentation was given as part of the Science Hall Colloquium speaker series.
During his talk, Brylski reviewed the transportation fuel industry as it stands today and the challenges the industry faces tomorrow. He also discussed the benefits and drawbacks of biodiesel from a chemical perspective.
As the talk began, Brylski passed around a vial containing a sample of biodiesel. Brylski described the sample as being nearly perfect, saying it was “clear, safe, and not going to explode.” Brylski added that a person could drink the sample and would be unlikely to get more than a stomachache.
After this brief introduction to biodiesel, Brylski started at the beginning, with humankind’s discovery of fire. According to Brylski, humans first realized the energy potential in oils when they observed cooking fat dripping onto their fires, causing the flames to intensify. Brylski then traced human use of energy up to the present day, in which humans have become dependent on petroleum.
According to Brylski, human dependence on petroleum has resulted from the combination of two factors: dramatic population growth and drastically increased per capita energy consumption.
With demand for petroleum ever increasing, Brylski identified some major challenges for the transportation fuel industry. The greatest challenge, Brylski said, is that “we are at or near peak production right now. The era of cheap oil is over.”
Brylski compared the quest for new sources of oil to the search for new land during the Age of Discovery. “We’ve found all the major deposits, all the major landmasses,” Brylski said. “All that’s left are the small islands.”
According to Brylski, the declining number of new oil discoveries can be compared to the tail end of a bell curve, with fewer and fewer discoveries over time. Because production can never outstrip discovery, oil production will not be able to keep pace with increasing demand.
Though we will never run out of oil completely, Brylski said that oil will soon become too expensive to use as a fuel, leaving the dwindling supply for chemical and plastic production.
Once he had pointed out the problems associated with humans’ current reliance on petroleum, Brylski began to describe biodiesel as a means of reducing some of that reliance.
“Biodiesel” is an umbrella term for a number of organic compounds that can be used as fuel after being made from waste oils derived from animal and vegetable products.
Brylski briefly described the chemical process used to produce biodiesel, a process called “transesterification.”
During transesterification, fat molecules known as triglycerides are broken down into simpler compounds, called methyl esters, which can be used in biodiesel. A common organic compound called glycerin is also released as a byproduct of the procedure. The raw materials for biodiesel production can be fat molecules from waste animal material, recycled grease or oils derived from seeds such as soybeans. These materials are combined with methanol and potassium hydroxide, two hazardous chemicals, to complete the transesterification.
Producing biodiesel is practical because it makes use of waste oils and excess production of vegetable oils to create a fuel that decreases dependence on foreign oil and is somewhat renewable, or at least “sort of carbon neutral,” Brylski said.
Brylski strongly warned his audience that biodiesel was not a solution. Though biodiesel as an alternative fuel might “save a few pennies and do good for the environment, we are looking at a new world not dominated by a few sources [of energy] in the near future.”
With the future of energy in diversity and new discovery, Brylski concluded that the “energy field is wide open” and that “people looking at careers in energy are in pretty good shape.