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Biodiesels & Biolubricants

April 01, 2013
Girma Biresaw
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STLE Annual Meeting Education Course Preview: Biodiesels & Biolubricants

Biodiesels and biolubricants occupy important and fast growing sectors of the modern economy. They are being pursued for their potential to provide environmentally safe and economically sustainable products essential to a modern economy. This is particularly important since petroleum, the backbone of current economic activity, is considered environmentally harmful and fast depleting. Biodiesels and biolubricants command a very minute share of their respective markets, which is currently dominated by petroleum based products. However, this is expected to change rapidly in the near future due to the confluence of a host of factors pushing the development and commercialization of biobased products. Understanding biodiesels and biolubricants and the factors that push them forward requires a basic knowledge of their chemistry, properties, and domestic and international laws governing their manufacture and use.

Unlike petroleum, the raw materials for biodiesels and biolubricants are not mined from the ground and cracked in refineries. They are mainly vegetable oils, and are squeezed or extracted from oil bearing commercially farmed crops such as soybean in the U.S. Different types of crops are used in different countries (e.g. , canola in Canada and Europe, palm in Southeast Asia, etc), and one has to have knowledge of the difference in the chemical properties of the oils obtained from different crops to successfully convert it to biodiesels and biolubricants. 

Conversion of vegetable oils to biodiesels and biolubricants requires knowledge of the various processes which can be described as chemical, enzymatic, thermal, or various combinations of these. One should be aware that the underlying process of converting vegetable to oils to biodiesels is totally different from that to biolubricants. Numerous and a growing list of processes are used to make a variety of biolubricant ingredients from vegetable oils. The product of interest from the biodiesel process (biofuel) is a mixture of fatty acid methyl esters or FAME.

An important property of biodiesels and biolubricants is biodegradability. This term is used to quantify how easily biodiesels and biolubricants decompose when spilled or disposed into the environment. Biodiesels and biolubricants are considered environmentally friendly because they decompose faster than the corresponding petroleum based products. However, different countries have different definitions and standards for biodegradability of biodiesels and biolubricants. It is important that one is familiar and also comply with the standards for biodegradability in different markets (U.S., EU, etc) in order to export and sell biodiesel and biolubricant products. 

A major challenge to commercialization of biodiesels and biolubricants is competitive pricing relative to petroleum based products. Even though biodiesels and biolubricants have beneficial environmental and health properties they are more expensive than the corresponding petroleum based products. As a result, they are unable to compete effectively in the market place. In order to counter this price disadvantage, a number of governments (EU, U.S.; IA, IL and other states in U.S.; Germany , Sweden and other countries in Europe) have passed laws to encourage the purchase of biodiesels and biolubricants  over petroleum based products.  These laws range from special government approved labels (e.g., BioPreferred in the U.S.; Eco-Label in EU) to price subsidy.

Biodiesels and biolubricants are relatively new to their respective markets, which is dominated by petroleum based products developed and refined over a century. So, it is to be expected that biodiesels and biolubricants will have some performance issues relative to their petroleum based competitors. For example, the use of biodiesel as fuel for a variety of equipments (automobiles, buses, trucks, tractors, trains, airplanes, and power generators) requires careful development to ensure they meet the requirement for each category of devices, such as: compatibility with equipment components, fuel efficiency, vehicle emissions, etc. Similarly, biolubricants must be modified and/or formulated to match the performance requirements of the specific applications (e.g., metalworking, metalforming, hydraulic oil, gear oil, engine oil, grease, etc.). Great efforts are underway to develop biodiesels and biolubricants that are competitive in performance with petroleum based products.

Currently, there are a number of biodiesel and biolubricant products that have been commercialized in certain niche markets. Biodiesel with 20 % FAME (B20) is commercialized on city & school buses as well commercial fleet trucks worldwide. Biodiesel is also used as fuel in electric generators and certain locomotive diesel engines. Niche markets in which bioubricants have made inroads include transformer fluids, aluminum hot rolling, two-cycle engines, gear lubricants, greases, and penetrating lubricants.

The above described issues concerning the development and commercialization of biodiesels and biolubricants will be discussed in this course. Click here to read more about the course, see course instructors, their biographies and view individual module descriptions. If you're interested in other courses, see the full course listing for the 2013 Annual Meeting here. The 2013 AM is being held in Detroit, MI, May 5-9, 2013.

This article was written by Dr. Girma Biresaw, who works at USDA-ARS-NCAUR in Peoria, IL. He is the Course Chair for Biofuels & Lubes, along with Vice Chair, Neil Canter.

Other articles from this issue:

  • New Developments in Biobased Metalworking and Other Lubricants, by Lou Honary
  • Sustainability and Closing the Loop, by Satish V. Kailas
  • New Test Method CEC-L-130-12 for Testing Biodegradability of Lubricants, by Ben Müeller-Zermini
  • Analytical Strategies for Determining the Biodiesel Potential of Algae, by A.S. Sarpal and Paulo R. Silva
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