Making Biodiesel: Brew Your Own Biofuel

A small community farm explores options for growing crops to produce vegetable oil for fuel. Find out more in this introduction to making biodiesel.

| June/July 2008

I moved to Missoula in December 2006 to enter the environmental studies graduate program at The University of Montana. There I found an active community motivated by the desire for self-sufficiency. I soon was introduced to the people and activities at one of the local hubs of sustainability, the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society (PEAS) farm.

The PEAS farm is managed collaboratively by the University and the nonprofit Garden City Harvest. The farm is run by student interns, volunteers and a director from the environmental studies program. The nine-acre farm emphasizes sustainability and provides an opportunity to contribute to the local food pantry. On an annual basis, the farm provides 20,000 pounds of vegetables to the food bank and 80 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members who pay an annual “subscription” to receive a weekly share of the produce throughout the season.

Initially, my interest was piqued by the farm’s focus on promoting local food systems. In addition to planting, weeding and harvesting vegetables, I built fences, planted trees, fixed sprinklers, moved rocks and fed livestock. The more involved I became, the more I realized that every aspect of the farm related to my graduate work in some way. Over time, my interest in sustainable fuel sources and making biodiesel has grown.

With a vision of helping others achieve greater self-sufficiency, PEAS students have started a study to test the viability of running a tractor on vegetable oil produced on the farm. We hope the benefits of running a tractor on vegetable oil will help small-scale farmers achieve self-reliance, expand their markets for oilseed crops and reduce their environmental footprint.

Biodiesel or Straight Vegetable Oil?

In the 1890s Rudolf Diesel designed the original diesel engine to run on vegetable oil, but modern diesel engines are intended to run on petroleum diesel. For those interested in making biodiesel for diesel engines, the world of biofuels offers two options: biodiesel or vegetable oil. Using biodiesel requires modifications to the vegetable oil itself; using straight vegetable oil requires modification to the diesel engine.

Both biofuels have pros and cons, plus complicated nuances to their use and production. But for those with enough patience and enthusiasm to embrace biodiesel or veggie oil fuel, the rewards can be great.

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