A (Very) Brief History of Biodiesel

  • Rudolf Diesel was the father of the engine which bears his name. The idea, he hoped, would make his engines more attractive to farmers having a source of fuel readily available. The first Diesel engine ran on peanut oil.
  • "The fact that fat oils from vegetable sources can be used may seem insignificant today, but such oils may perhaps become in course of time of the same importance as some natural mineral oils and the tar products are now."[1] Rudolf Diesel 1912
  • The diesel engine works on the principal of compression ignition, in which fuel is injected into the engine’s cylinder after air has been compressed to a high pressure and temperature. As the fuel enters the cylinder it self-ignites and burns rapidly, forcing the piston back down and converting the chemical energy in the fuel into mechanical energy.
  • Shortly after Dr. Diesel’s death in 1913 petroleum became widely available in a variety of forms, including the class of fuel we know today as "diesel fuel". With petroleum being available and cheap, the diesel engine design was changed to match the properties of petroleum diesel fuel. The result was an engine which was fuel efficient and very powerful. For the next 80 years diesel engines would become the industry standard where power, economy and reliability are required.
  • Vegetable oil diesel slowly reentered the market with the development of transesterification process. Developed in 1937 by a Belgian inventor, the transesterification reaction is the basis for the production of modern biodiesel, which is the trade name for fatty acid methyl esters.
  • In the early 1980s concerns over the environment, energy security, and agricultural overproduction once again brought the use of vegetable oils to the forefront, this time with transesterification as the preferred method of producing such fuel replacements.
  • The unaddressed concerns from the 1980s have reemerged with the turn of the new century. A new global push to find sustainable replacement fuels have driven use of biodiesel to its highest levels ever.