Beyond Biowillie

Filed by Erika Engelhaupt

Today, we rode in style—biodiesel style. Sure, it may not have panned out when Willie Nelson teamed up with celebrities to brand his own biodiesel; last week, the company reported $63 million in annual losses. But the fuel powering us in Brazil is on the cutting edge of renewable fuels research, and the scientists working on it hope to develop a worldwide market for the stuff.


brazil-resize.jpgOur visit with researchers at the University of Campinas began as we hopped into three experimental biodiesel vehicles from the Laboratory for Development of Clean Technology (its Portuguese acronym is LADETEL). The lab tests new biodiesel blends that are made from some exotic renewable sources, by U.S. standards: palm oil, soybean oil, and even castor oil (yum!).


Miguel Dabdoub of the University of São Paulo directs LADETEL. Today he proudly demonstrated his latest concoction, a blend of 30% biodiesel (in this case, made from 75% soy and 25% castor) with 70% diesel fuel (the old-fashioned fossil-fuel kind).


When our caravan pulled off the highway to buy the regular diesel that Dabdoub blends in, a station attendant asked the scientist if he wanted ethanol. No, Dabdoub replied. Gasoline? No again. Natural gas? No. Information, then? Nope. The attendant could only look on in surprise as Dabdoub reached into the trunk, pulled out a carboy of lab-brewed biodiesel, and poured it in through a funnel. Glug, glug.


Meanwhile, another carboy of biodiesel made from palm oil sat neglected in the trunk, an experimental reject because of its unfortunate tendency to solidify at around 23 oC, which is not far from room temperature. Dabdoub’s still working on that one. He says palm oil is promising in part because palms can produce as much as 12 times more usable oil than soybeans do.


Why biodiesel? “Because the world needs it,” Dabdoub says. Because of its higher mileage efficiency and ability to improve engine torque, diesel is the best fuel choice for trains and big trucks that need to pull hard and drive far. Biodiesel still has the problem of high smog-producing NOx emissions that plagues regular diesel. But Dabdoub points out that today, 57% of the fuel Brazil consumes is diesel, and he hopes to create a more environmentally friendly replacement.


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