Sunday, February 26, 2006

I Fixed The Heater On The Biodiesel Guinea Pig, And Guess What Else I Did!

So what happens when you swipe a liter of cooking oil from your wife . . . .

Add 200 ml of methanol . . . .

3.5 grams of sodium hydroxide lye . . . .

Heat it up to 130 degrees and shake the living crap out of it?


Well, it wasn't quite that simple but the first test batch is finishing up drying even as I type, that's why it's so cloudy in the picture, it hasn't completely dried yet. Supposedly it will clear up in a day or two as the last of the wash water works its way out. Supposedly heating it back up to 120 degrees will clarify it instantly, it does, too bad it gets cloudy again as soon as it cools. Supposedly lots of things happen, sometimes they don't, that's why I like to try things out for myself. Except meth, I don't want to try that out for myself, ok maybe, but just once.

I started out Saturday morning, after work, intending to mix up the sodium methoxide solution (lye dissolved in methanol) since it was purported to take a while to dissolve. I wasn't going to try making biodiesel until Sunday but about 20 minutes later I had in my greedy little paws, 200ml of fully dissolved, fully mixed, fully ready to use to make biodiesel sodium methoxide. That's methoxide, not methamphetamine, they make that down the street. Since my methoxide solution was sitting there looking so lonely and rejected, I couldn't resist the urge to mix it with something. Gee, guess it doesn't take that long to dissolve after all, not if you keep shaking it anyway. Actually shaking it isn't the best idea, swirling it is the word I was looking for. The little beads of lye have to be completely dissolved before the solution is ready, don't use it yet if it looks like this . . . .

Keep swirling until it looks like this . . . . you don't have to swirl it constantly but the more you swirl, the faster it's ready.

If you're using a plastic bottle like I am make damn sure that it's marked HDPE, as in high density polyethylene, otherwise it could melt sending a big splash of sodium methoxide all over the place. Don't use pop bottles, they'll melt, and don't use glass jars if they have plastic lids, the lids will melt, not kidding, be careful kids, methanol is bad stuff, especially after you put lye in it. Most plastic bottles have a mark on the bottom designating what type of plastic they are, it's that little triangular recycling symbol with a number in it. HDPE will have the number 2 inside the triangle, and usually it's marked HDPE as well. You can buy HDPE bottles in various sizes that would be suitable for this purpose. I like free stuff, so I stole mine, but don't tell anybody.

Oh yeah, and you should wear chemical resistant gloves when you're playing with this stuff, methanol is big time flammable and can be absorbed through your skin. Once you add lye, it's highly caustic, as in eat the hide right off of your bones caustic. At the very least it'd hurt like hell if you got it on yourself. I didn't wear chemical resistant gloves because I forgot to put them on. I was in a hurry. That isn't a good excuse. Wear chemical resistant gloves. Do as I say, not as I do, I'm a lousy example. Did I mention that you should wear gloves when playing around with lye and methanol? Keep running water handy too just in case, lye and methanol are both water soluble so they'll wash off easily, if you're still alive to turn on the faucet. Scared yet? Good. Now be careful.

Making biodiesel on your dining room table isn't the best idea either . . . . . at least not if you're clumsy like me . . . . . seems that methanol eats certain types of wood finishes . . . . . whoda thunk it? She'll forgive me . . . . . I think.

So anyway, once the methoxide . . . . . that's methoxide not methamphetamine . . . . . is completely mixed, we heat the oil up to 130 degrees on our handy dandy hot plate cooker thingy, we know it's ready when our handy dandy thermometer thingy says so. Don't let it get too hot. Did I mention that a liter of oil takes a lot longer to cool down than it takes to heat up? These nifty little thermometer thingies are about five bucks, but they don't come with the nifty little hanger thingy. I'm sure you can buy the nifty little hanger thingies too, I made mine out of a paper clip. I couldn't find one to steal.

Once the oil is cooled back down to 130, (methanol boils at about 140 so if the oil's too hot we'll boil off too much methanol too fast and the reaction might not be able to complete, or blow the lid off of our pickle jar processor, whichever comes first), we can add the methoxide solution and begin the transesterification process. I've seen several references to using an old blender to process test batches, I didn't have an old blender, so I just put it in a pickle jar and shook the living bejeebers out of it. It worked fine right up until I needed to drain the separated components off of the bottom, (the glycerin after the initial process, and the wash water later) then it started to suck. I'm planning on building a mini processor for making test batches later, but for now I'm using a coffee can and a pickle jar, baby steps remember, baby steps. That and I like pickles.

After adding the methoxide and shaking it up good several times over the course of about an hour, setting the jar in 130 degree water in between shakes to maintain the temperature, we then set the jar somewhere safe so the cat doesn't knock it over and wait for the glycerin to settle out. Cat's don't run on biodiesel, or at least I don't think they do, maybe I should feed some to the cat and find out. Hmmmmm . . . . . . the possibilities.

Oh yeah, this is what it looks like after about 12 hours of settling . . . . .

The gold colored stuff on the bottom is glycerin and methanol, the yellow stuff on top is biodiesel with some lye and soap and residual methanol left floating around in it. Lye and soap and methanol aren't good for fuel pumps and injectors, so we'll wash them out and feed them to the cat. How do we do that? With water of course, what else would we use to wash a cat, I mean biodiesel?

This is what it looks like after you add the water and shake it up, I don't remember which wash this pic was from but the fuel and water are just starting to separate. I ran 4 washes on this fuel until the wash water was coming out crystal clear. Each one took only a few minutes to settle so I figure I must have done a pretty good job on the transesterification, otherwise I'd have wound up with a jar of goop. This batch was made with fresh oil, we'll see if it works this good when I try it with used stuff.

If the first reaction wasn't complete, or if you use too much lye, it'll show up in the wash process. I tested a small amount of fuel in a baby food jar before I washed the whole batch just in case. When I shook up the water and fuel in the baby food jar it instantly turned into a goopy white emulsion, so I thought I'd flubbed up royal, but after a very short time it separated out just as pretty as you please, so I went ahead and washed the whole batch. When making large batches it's a good idea to take a 1 liter sample and try to reprocess it to see if any more glycerin drops out. I considered reprocessing this batch just for giggles to see what happened, but decided against it. Once I build a mini processor and start playing around with used oil I will, but this is just the first test and I really didn't feel like doing the whole thing over without a way to drain the waste off of the bottom of the jar. Sitting around with an eye dropper trying to suck the last couple drops of biodiesel off of the top of the glycerin or water without mixing it up sucks, takes friggin forever. My next test batch will be made in something with a drain on the bottom if I have anything to say about it.

This is what the last wash looks like, cloudy biodiesel on top, clear water on the bottom. It's not blurry like that in real life, that happens when the photographer isn't holding still with the camera in macro mode. I think she was still shaking with anger over the finish getting eaten off of her table, so I'll forgive her, this time.

Another quality test is to check the PH of the used wash water, if it's close to the PH of the water you put in, that's a pretty good indicator that all of the residual lye and soap are washed out. If the PH is too high, then you need more washing. If the PH is too low, somebody snuck in when you weren't looking and dumped something acidic into your biodiesel. You should find them immediately and beat the dog snot out of them, just a suggestion, it's what I'd do.

The PH of my last wash water was slightly higher than normal tap water, but since this is just a test batch, and time is limited, and I don't have a pickle jar with a drain on the bottom, I figure that it's good enough. Once I get some sort of processor built I can set this stuff up and let it run while I go do something else, this batch was awfully time consuming since everything was so hands on. Baby steps remember, baby steps. Always remember to keep your pack of smokes handy when making biodiesel as well, but don't smoke around methanol, unless you like dieing a fiery death, I hear some people like that sort of thing, I don't, well OK, but just once.

So there you have it, the full account of my first batch of biodiesel. I'm still looking for suppliers for the nasty chemical goodies, I'm still looking for stuff to build my super jammy gigundo processor, and I still haven't figured out the tax angle, but I'm a hell of a lot closer to making this a reality than I was back in 1983 when I first heard that old fryer grease could be made into diesel fuel and decided that it was a pretty cool idea. Just my luck though, right when I decide I'm finally going to do this it gets popular. All I've been hearing on the news lately is biodiesel this and biodiesel that. Just ducky, now I'll be competing with everybody else for used oil and the price of methanol and lye will shoot even higher than they already are. Guess I better find some barrels and talk to some restaurant owners quick, before all the good stuff is spoken for, and find a place to steal methanol and lye. I'd be willing to bet that the death meth labs don't pay for their ingredients, OK, maybe they do, but just once. Too bad I couldn't sell biodiesel for a hundred bucks a gram or better, then I could afford to buy my ingredients too.

And in other news . . . . .

Anybody else catch Governor Schweitzer on 60 Minutes? Seems he's quite enamored with this whole "make diesel out of coal" idea. That'd be great if we didn't have to dig up the countryside to do it. There's a dumpster full of grease just waiting to be made into diesel behind every restaurant in the state and he's hung up on digging more coal mines. How much money did the coal mining industry donate to Schweitzer's campaign anyway? He says he's committed to breaking our dependence on foreign oil with this coal oil thing, I say if he really was he'd be working on making it easier for people to make their own biodiesel without pissing off the tax man. Maybe he wants to break our dependence on foreign oil, too bad he just wants to switch it to a different bunch of corporate asshats hell bent on raping the environment for a buck.

I'm urging everyone to write letters and send emails to the Governor asking him to demand that the tax structure of Montana be reworded to allow home brewers of biodiesel to practice their craft uninhibited by legal hang ups. The least he could do is bring the problem to the public's attention, or at least make the requirements more well known since I can't seem to find them anywhere, not in English anyway. I have no problem whatsoever paying my road tax obligation, but that could be handled with a simple fuel permit purchased annually for a nominal fee based on an average of how many miles most people drive in a year on State maintained roads, along with a discount as a reward for being environmentally responsible and independent from foreign oil, that way anybody could do this as long as they had the money to buy the permit. Chances are that lots of people would buy the permit and never use it or only use it for a short time then get fed up with the hassle and go back to buying fuel at the pump, translating into more revenue for the state.

I can make my own beer without getting in trouble with the law, I can build my own house, I don't have to be a licensed electrician to work on the wiring in my own home, I can even cook my own supper if my wife isn't home and that's the one that's a dangerous proposition. I figure I should be able to make my own fuel as well, and so should you. I may not have the money that the coal and oil industries have to influence political agendas, but I can send a lot of emails and letters. What say we see just how dedicated to the environment that our governor really is, unless he's too busy being dedicated to corporate America to read our correspondence. Whaddya say Governor Schweitzer?

Don't worry about the cat, I didn't really feed him lye, but he has been acting a little strange lately . . . . .


Joe G said...

Hey Justin, You should try Meth once! But be warned you might lose a couple things. Like Family, Home and Auto! I'm warning you not to even try it once, I've seen it pull people in so easy.

Table Mountains said...

i bet if you had one of those contraptions you see in hardware stores that mixes paint it would make things easier for you.

Anonymous said...

Justin - You are exactly right about the Governor! I was very dissapointed that he acted like the strip mining part was no big deal. In fact, in the part where they were flying over the mines, he called them "little trenches". I love that you posted the directions of how to make your own biodiesel at the same time. Helen Waller was trying to bring up that point in the interview, but I think Lesley Stahl was too enamored with him to want to push him on the issue. If you or anyone else want more information, I've found a lot at Looks like they are trying to push more biofuel options and are interested in protecting Eastern Montana from senseless strip mining.

Justin said...

Joe G, I have no intentions whatsoever of trying meth, nor making it, not even once. The whole thing came about from family members and friends giving me a hard time about buying and setting up all of this lab gear and whatnot. My twisted sense of humor took the jokes and ran, I've seen the devastation that people wreak on themselves with meth, and I want no part of it. My way of coping with something as disturbing as the meth crisis is to crack jokes about it, in other words I laugh to keep from crying.

Howdy Wayne, a paint shaker probably would work, but the plans call for a tank, probably a water heater, with pumps to do the mixing. I haven't figured out exactly how I'm going to make my mini processor yet for test batches, but I have a few ideas floating around in this empty head of mine. If I happened across a paint shaker that I could get my hands on for little or nothing, it would definitely be a possibility. I already have an idea for a methoxide mixer that would work on a similar principle, albeit not quite so violently. My idea involves a windshield wiper motor from a car hooked up to a platform that would rock back and forth slowly. When I get around to building it, I'll document the whole thing here of course.

anonymous, I thought the "little trenches" reference was a gas too. Mining companies have been required to clean up their messes for a long time, that doesn't mean that they always do. Problem is, when a mining company moves out, they're usually bankrupt. Who pays for the cleanup then? I'm not anti mining, not by a long shot, but strip mines aren't exactly my idea of being environmentally responsible. Taking money from one huge corporate entity and giving it to another one isn't exactly my idea of independence either. Independence is being able to make our own fuel here at home, either commercially or on a personal level, without raping the environment or getting in trouble with the law in the process. I'm not entirely opposed to the coal oil idea, but I think that integrating it with increased biodiesel production would be a good idea both from an environmental and economical standpoint. That way we provide more jobs in the mining sector, make a market for oil crops for the farmers, benefit the environment, and break our dependence on foreign oil. Everybody wins.

Oh yeah, and in the process they need to make it easier for people to make their own fuel legally, screw the corporate asshats, I can do it myself. ;)

Joe Visionary said...

Hiya Justin,

Forgive me if you already know of these people, but as with anthing new, it helps when you can find others similarly striving to make some headway in your own experiments.

Also, you had asked about electronics. I may be able to help you if you have any questions.

Justin said...

Howdy Joe, good to hear from you. The folks do indeed have some good info. If I remember correctly they're the ones with the colaborative online tutorial where I found the plans for a processor made from an electric water heater. I was already planning on using the heating elements and thermostatic controls from one built into a different tank, but according to them the whole darn thing tank and all works great. I didn't figure that it would drain good enough but they say that the bottom has a sump in it and that they drain great, saved me having to cut one apart to see what made it tick. Now if I could just find one to play with that didn't cost too much . . .

As far as the electronics are concerned, with this whole biodiesel thing I haven't had time to mess with any of my radios in a while. I did manage to fix one on my own, but I still have a couple laying around in need of repair. Mostly I need some more test equipment, oscilloscope, rf signal generator, frequency counter, ect. before I can move ahead too much further with that particular endeavor. I've been checking ebay from time to time and there's some really good deals to be had for sure, but for the moment I'm trying to stay focused on one project at a time. I'm trying to cure myself of this whole dropitis thing. If by some bizarre twist of fate I actually see this biodiesel project through to completion, then I'll have more resources (i.e. - time and money) available to monkey with radios. Don't worry Joe, I haven't forgotten about you, I'll be bombarding you with questions soon enough I'm sure. Take it easy amigo.