When the grid goes down, life changes.
One of the key skills it pays to acquire is learning how to make alternative fuels, such as biodiesel, because it can be used as fuel in a diesel engine and as a primary source of fuel for generators at a remote bugout location or refuge. It also has a number of other uses, including as fuel for your oil-fired heaters and lamps.
Not only does biodiesel have multiple uses, it is also one of the easier types of alternative fuels to make because of the simple process involved and the ready availability of the source materials.
Here’s how to do it.
Six Simple Steps
Making biodiesel is a simple process; but it is one that requires precise measurements and caution in handling the materials used to make this alternative fuel.
Step #1: Assemble All Your Materials
You will need the following materials to make your biodiesel, and you should have them all on hand and ready to use when you begin. You don’t want to have to step away to get your measuring spoons or find propane for your stove.
- waste vegetable oil (WVO) or pure vegetable oil
- methanol (methyl alcohol)
- measuring spoons
- measuring cup
- 1-quart glass container
- half-gallon (2-liter) clear plastic container, such as a 2-liter soda bottle
- protective rubber gloves
- protective eyewear
- protective apron
- heater to warm your waste or pure vegetable oil, such as a propane stove or electric burner
- metal pot to heat your waste or pure vegetable oil
Note: Anything that comes in contact with the lye must be a non-reactive vessel. A non-reactive vessel is one that does not oxidize or release metal ions when exposed to something very acidic (such as lemon juice or tomatoes) or very basic (such as lye). For this reason, you should avoid vessels made from aluminum, copper, or cast iron. Your best bet is to use something made from glass, plastic, or ceramic.
This procedure requires good ventilation, so doing it in a well-ventilated room—or preferably outside—is necessary. For this article, we are doing it outside.
Step #2: Heat the WVO
Pour 4 cups of WVO into a metal pot or saucepan and heat it to between 130 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit—any hotter than this, and you run the risk of melting your mixing container.
Step #3: Make the Sodium Methoxide
While the WVO is heating, pour 1 cup (or 250 ml) of methanol (methyl alcohol), followed by 1½ teaspoons of lye (sodium hydroxide), into a glass container that uses a non-reactive lid. Place this lid on the glass container and shake or swirl the container to thoroughly mix the methanol and lye. Water and other contaminants might settle to the bottom of your heating vessel as you heat the WVO.
Step Four: Combine the Heated WVO and the Sodium Methoxide
Pour the heated WVO into a half-gallon (2-liter) plastic bottle. Take care to ensure that no water or other contaminants are poured into your mixing container. Then, add the methanol/lye mixture (sodium methoxide). Do this slowly to avoid splattering or spilling. Use a funnel for pouring each of these liquids into the half-gallon container.
Place the lid on the container and shake it vigorously for 20 to 30 seconds to fully mix the two liquids. Then, set the bottle down and wait.
Step Five: Transesterification (Separating the Biodiesel From the Glycerin)
Through a process called “transesterification,” the WVO and sodium methoxide mixture will separate into two liquids—biodiesel and glycerin. The glycerin will be a thin layer of darker liquid that, due to its greater density, will sink to the bottom of the container. The lighter biodiesel will remain on top. The separation should be evident within 30 to 45 minutes, but it will take two to three days for all the glycerin to separate from the biodiesel. So, set the container somewhere it will not be disturbed or knocked over and let the chemistry do its thing.
Step Six: Remove the Glycerin
Depending on the purity of your WVO, the biodiesel produced will be approximately 85 to 100 percent of the amount of WVO.
The next step is to remove the glycerin from the container. If you left the container with the opening up so the glycerin settles to the bottom, you can pour off the biodiesel, leaving some of it in the container. Alternatively, if you store the container with the opening down, the glycerin will settle next to the opening, and you can slowly loosen the lid until the darker layer of glycerin starts to flow out.
Once clear liquid (biodiesel) starts to flow out, you can close the lid. The glycerin can be added to your compost to help with decomposition or it can be used to make soap.
You now know the basics of how to transform vegetable oil into biodiesel. Do some more reading on the Internet about other methods that use different chemicals and also research how to build or where to buy a biodiesel production system so you can make this fuel in larger quantities and at a lower cost. (See sidebars 2 and 3 for some suggested websites.)
Biodiesel can be a useful resource for you and your family, and it can also be quite a valuable resource you can trade during bleaker times, when you need something you don’t have or can’t do yourself.
Larry Schwartz is an experienced outdoorsman, prepper, hunter, shooter, and instructor who enjoys passing on his love and knowledge of the outdoors, the shooting sports, and how to “be prepared” through his writing and workshops on a wide variety of topics. He is a longtime and regular contributor to several of Engaged Media’s publications.
One of the first alternative fuel engines was created by Rudolf Diesel, the German scientist for whom diesel fuel and diesel engines are named. Diesel saw the usefulness of non-petroleum-based oils as sources of power and foresaw today’s biofuel marketplace.
When asked about its usefulness, he said, “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today, but such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum.”
In 1898, he was granted a U.S. patent for a diesel engine he designed for farmers to use so they could grow their own fuel in the form of peanuts and peanut oil.
The Science Behind Biodiesel
Biodiesel in all its forms starts with animal fat or vegetable oil, which are tri-glycerides composed of glycerin and fatty acids. The addition of lye (sodium hydroxide) to the fat or oil breaks the fatty acids from the molecules’ glycerin “backbone.” Adding methanol (methyl alcohol) to the mix gives the free fatty acids something to bond to.
The new molecule made of the fatty acids and methanol is called “biodiesel.” It is a simple process when using pure ingredients, but it can get more complicated if your source materials are contaminated (for example, if you are using old cooking oil or if there is water mixed in with the oil). These are not insurmountable obstacles; they just require some additional steps to “clean” the oil.
The following websites provide information about how to make or where to buy biodiesel kits and production facilities:
The following websites and organizations are excellent sources for information about making biodiesel in larger amounts, as well as how to “clean” the impurities from it:
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.