Wednesday, February 15, 2006

So I Got Off Work Early This Morning . . . .

and I felt like doing some math. Sounds odd I know doing math at 3 AM but I've never claimed to be normal. Now, if you'll allow me the priveledge, I'm gonna get really weird.

If you'd all be so kind as to remove your noses from the rubber cement bottles and take your seats we'll get started. Very well then, here's what I've figured out so far.

The chemical reaction necessary to convert waste vegetable oil into biodiesel requires a catalyst, that catalyst is sodium hydroxide, commonly known as lye. Other catalysts can be used but lye seems to be the cheapest and most readily available, or at least lye used to be readily available, seems that lye is also an ingredient in methamphetamine so now it's somewhat controlled, go figure. Is it just me or is just about everything that's a pure ingredient in anything that people make themselves all of a sudden controlled because it's an ingredient in meth? I think it's a conspiracy to keep people dependent on big business and the government myself. If you can't make things yourself you have to buy them and be dependent on the people selling them, right? Sounds like a control tactic if I ever heard one. I know, I'm paranoid, but I've never claimed to be normal. I am however at least somewhat independent, not as much as I'd like to be, but better than average I like to think. War on Plants be damned, I'm pressing forward!

Lye used to be sold in any supermarket or hardware store as a drain opener but a half day search around town yielded nothing except a bunch of funny "OMG, he's making meth!" looks from the helpful hardware folks that I asked about it, nobody said anything, but I could tell what they were thinking. Never mind that lye is used for about a hundred other things like making soap, and removing rust from metal, and making biodiesel. Nobody knows how to make anything themselves anymore, all they know is that some people make meth, they don't have a clue how they do it, they just know that they do because the commercials on TV told them so. If it's nasty, or corrosive, or caustic, or has a little skull and crossbones on the bottle, it must be an ingredient in meth they think.

I'm not making meth. . . well . . . ok . . . but just once. No seriously, I don't know how to make meth, I don't use meth, and I couldn't care less how it's made or what's in it. What I do know is that no matter how many store clerks are made into spies in the "War on Drugs", people will continue to make meth by the buckets as long as the profits make it worthwhile, they'll just get their ingredients elsewhere. Or worse, they'll use impure ingredients like household cleaners and drain openers containing other undesirable substances not necessary for whatever chemical processes they're trying to produce and make a product even more dangerous than the one they've made in the past. Thanks to these morons, the druggies and the idiots stupid enough to give a rat's ass if they fry their brains snorting lye, I'm having a hard time finding the pure ingredients that I need. While meth addicts may not care if their "fuel" is made with Drano Crystals or pure lye, I do. I'm not trying to remove a hair clog from my engine or get it stoned, I'm trying to make quality fuel for it and commercial preparations merely containing these chemicals aren't pure enough for my purposes. I say legalize meth, I'll be able to buy my biodiesel ingredients at the hardware store, and it won't be long before all of the tweakers snort and smoke themselves to death, then there won't be a meth problem.

When I was a kid one of my favorite shows on TV was Mr. Wizard's World. Remember all the cool stuff he used to make? Mr. Wizard would have a hard time making a vinegar and baking soda volcano in today's world without getting a body cavity search. No wonder kids in this country score so low on math and science tests, if they take any interest in chemistry they're probably accused of making meth, god forbid they try to conduct any kind of experiment using anything more volatile than water. They'll ban that next, I'm sure it's an ingredient in meth as well.

I showed my kids how to make bombs out of pop bottles and dry ice, I like science, I want my kids to like science too, but then again, I've never claimed to be normal, oh yeah, and blowing stuff up is fun. When was the last time you blew something up? When was the last time you spent quality time with your kids blowing something up? Never? That's why you're so uptight, that's why you need meth to function, that's why your kids will be just like you, now quit ruining my country with your stupid assed nanny state laws and go blow something up for heaven's sake. Just don't blow up anything important, I don't want anybody getting thrown in jail, especially me.

Anybody want to start a pool? We could all bet on when the cops are going to show up at my house. If they never do, I'll just keep the money. What do you think? 5 bucks gets you in. The 4th of July doesn't count, the cops always stop by on the 4th, it's a tradition.

Anyway, back to the lye, and the math. Pure sodium hydroxide lye is still available from soapmaking supply companies in fairly large quantities for not too terrible of a price. I found a 30 lb tub of it for a little less than a hundred bucks, the shipping is atrocious, hazmat fees. I'm going to try to find it locally from a chemical supplier, but until then the figure I'm using is $3.00/pound. Let's look at what that's going to cost when we start making biodiesel, shall we?

When converting virgin vegetable oil into biodiesel the basic amount of lye used is 3.5 grams/liter, the figures vary according to who you ask but this figure seems to be a common starting point. Used oil, however, contains free fatty acids released by the oil being heated in a fryer that have to be neutralized in addition to the normal transesterification process necessary to remove the glycerin from the oil and replace it with methanol. If you don't know what I'm talking about I layed out some background here.

Now lye, being a base or alkaline, is a perfect substance for neutralizing these acids, but we have to know exactly how much is needed or else we'll wind up with a mess. An incomplete reaction if there's not enough leaving nasties in our fuel, or a big tank full of glop if we use too much since the excess lye will continue reacting with the oil, making soap. We may make soap later, today we're learning how to make biodiesel. The way we determine how much lye is needed is by performing a titration using a solution of 0.1% lye dissolved into distilled water and adding it to a second solution made by dissolving 1 ml of the oil being tested in 10 ml of isopropanol. In order to measure the lye we'll need the handy dandy digital scale that I bought on ebay which hasn't arrived as of yet. We'll add the lye/water solution 1 ml at a time until the PH of the oil/isopropanol solution is 8.5, which we'll measure with the handy dandy digital PH meter that I bought on ebay and which arrived in the mail today. At that point we take the amount of the titration solution needed to reach the desired PH, and add it to the base figure of 3.5 grams/liter for uncooked oil.

So let's say that our oil is particularly nasty, in other words a worst case scenario. Oil that had been so badly overheated that you could actually feel your arteries hardening with every french fry that you ate from all of the free fatty acids floating around in it. From what I'm finding even oil like this would probably take 6.5 ml of test solution to reach PH 8.5 as an absolute maximum, chances are that most oil would take half that much. I'm trying to work out an absolute worst case scenario here in order to figure cost potential. If you take 6.5 (the number of ml of test solution needed to reach the proper PH), and add it to 3.5 (the number of grams/liter of lye needed for virgin oil) we come up with 10. What this means is that this oil would need 10 grams of lye for 1 liter of oil in order to properly and completely transesterify, or 100 grams for 10 liters. Since a liter is pretty close to a quart, or at least close enough for our math purposes (not for actually making biodiesel, all proportions must be exact once we start mixing chemicals) we can figure that since 10 liters is approximately 2 1/2 gallons we'll need about 200 grams of lye for 5 gallons of oil, or 400 grams for 10 gallons. There's approximately 450 grams to a pound (once again, not exact but when I actually make this stuff all measurements will remain in metric throughout the process), so we can figure about 2 lbs of lye for a 20 gallon batch if that's the size processor I wind up making. As I said, this is a worst case scenario, all of my estimates err to the high side in terms of cost, and chances are that we'll not need nearly this much, I'm just trying to work out a basic cost estimate per gallon here so don't get all nit picky on me. Since a 30 lb tub of lye is about $100 dollars, I think we can consider it a close enough estimate that lye is about $3.00 a pound, so that's $6.00 for lye per 20 gallon batch. If we divide 6 by 20 we come up with .3, or $0.30 per gallon as about the highest possible cost for lye. Follow me so far? I didn't think so but wake the hell up anyway or I'll chuck an eraser at your head, besides, you're slobbering on your keyboard and your snoring is disturbing the two nerds in the front row that actually want to learn this stuff.

Now the other ingredient I mentioned is isopropanol, also known as isopropyl alcohol. You probably have a bottle of it in your medicine cabinet since it's the main ingredient in rubbing alcohol but once again, the drugstore variety isn't pure enough. The super pure variety seems rather expensive at first glance, about $25.00 per gallon, but when we consider that we'll only need 10 ml of it for every titration, and only one titration per batch as long as we don't screw up too often, the cost becomes negligible. Since there's approximately 3785 ml in a gallon, that's about 378 titrations worth for $25.00. If we do the math, we come up with a little less than $0.07 per titration. Since one titration is good for one batch of oil no matter what the size and we're planning on 20 gallon batches, that's about not even a half cent per gallon of finished product. Not really worth worrying about methinks. Some sources claim that ISO-Heet fuel line antifreeze will work, but a check of Gold Eagle's website shows that ISO-Heet has "special additives" in addition to isopropanol so I think I'll stick to the pure stuff. I may use ISO-Heet for my initial test batch, but for the stuff I'm going to actually use in my engine I'll fork out the bucks for the genuine article. I plan on contacting some local chemical suppliers to see if I can buy it in smaller quantities locally and avoid the shipping costs. Anyway, the point is that the cost of isopropanol isn't worth sweating about in this case.

The next key ingredient is methanol, but we'll save that one for next time. Your homework assignment is to go to the Montana State Website, dig through the Montana Legal Code, and see if you can tell me what the hell all of that legaleze means with regard to home biodiesel producers and their road tax obligation. From what I'm finding even people producing fuel for their own personal use are under the same requirements as someone making fuel to sell, and our governor claims to be committed to promoting alternative energy, hah! If one of the lawyer types out there can tell me what all of that crap translates to in English, then I'll be able to sound a lot more knowledgeable when I write a letter to Gov. Schweitzer asking him to issue an immediate executive order releasing homebrewers of biodiesel from all highway use tax obligations in order to make good on his promises to promote biofuels. I haven't even started to look into the Federal hoopla yet.

My best advice is this: Learn from my mistakes. If you're going to make your own biodiesel, don't tell anybody, damn sure don't post it on the internet, just do it and hope you don't get caught.

Class dismissed.

On a side note, I was doing some other math as well. Often it's useful to know the displacement of an engine in both Liters and Cubic Inches since a lot of service manuals and parts books use different standards than the engine manufacturers and even each other. My biodiesel guinea pig has a 6.9 Liter engine. A Liter is equal to 61 Cubic Inches. If you do the math you come up with. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 420. Ok, actually you come up with 420.9, but Ford calls it a 420. My point?

Miss ya Tony


a-fire-fly said...

Go to a Ranch Supply store and check for Isopropyl alcohol. I buy a gallon of 99% for about ten bucks at Western Ranch Supply. Then soak cotton balls in it and impress your friends by playing with fire. It doesn't burn you when you set your hands on fire. But I am sure you already knew that!

Justin said...

Wow! Thanks fire fly! There's a WRS store that I go by every day on my way home from work, I have to admit that I've never stopped there, I will be stopping by now for sure. I need some syringes that are graduated in milliliters as well, I'll bet they've got those too. Thanks again for the info, and yes, I have set my hand on fire with alcohol to freak people out, but I used methanol, even though they say you can absorb methanol through your skin and go blind, they say you can go blind from playing with yourself too, bah, humbug. Is it just me or is it getting darker in here? ;)

Justin said...

UPDATE: I stopped at Western Ranch Supply this morning after work. Sure enough, 99% Isopropyl Alcohol in gallons and quarts. I bought a gallon and two 12ml syringes for about $13.00, thanks again fire fly!

Anonymous said...

I got the alcohol at the pharmacy. How did I end up here? Looking for how to do titration the "old-fashioned" way. I don't know what that is. With phenol red, maybe? I use a pH meter, but I don't think that's accurate. So here's a request: Titration instructions.