Biodiesel Production and Distribution

Production

Biodiesel is produced from vegetable oils, yellow grease, used cooking oils, and animal fats. The production process, called transesterification, converts oils and fats into chemicals called long-chain mono alkyl esters, which is called biodiesel when used as a fuel. These chemicals are also referred to as fatty acid methyl esters or sometimes FAME. Roughly speaking, 100 pounds of oil or fat are reacted with 10 pounds of a short-chain alcohol (usually methanol) in the presence of a catalyst (usually sodium hydroxide [NaOH] or rarely, potassium hydroxide [KOH]) to form 100 pounds of biodiesel and 10 pounds of glycerin (or glycerol). Glycerin, a co-product, is a sugar commonly used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. Although the process is relatively simple, homemade biodiesel is not recommended. Users risk engine damage, loss of warranty, and operational problems from fuel that does not meet rigorous ASTM D6751 specifications.

Schematic of Biodiesel
Production Path

Raw or refined plant oil, or recycled greases that have not been processed into biodiesel, are not biodiesel and should not be used as vehicle fuel. Fats and oils (triglycerides) are much more viscous than biodiesel, and low-level vegetable oil blends can cause long-term engine deposits, ring sticking, lube-oil gelling, and other maintenance problems that can reduce engine life. (See Straight Vegetable Oil as a Diesel Fuel?).

Research is being conducted on developing algae as a potential biodiesel feedstock, because it's expected to produce high yields from a smaller area of land than vegetable oils.

Distribution

Biodiesel is distributed from the point of production to fuel terminals and wholesalers by truck, train, or barge. Biodiesel rarely ships by pipeline due to areas of production and low volumes. Most biodiesel distributors will deliver B20 or B100 depending on the retailer's preference. Find biodiesel distributors. For more information, see the National Biodiesel Board's Guide to Buying Biodiesel.