Saturday, September 11, 2010

Using alternative fuels

Having made biodiesel from hemp, flax and canola oils, from rancid & sprouted seeds, from waste vegetable oil and animal fat, I had learned that a high-quality diesel alternative could be fabricated quite easily. Having conducted a research initiative into producing biogas from animal manure, grass clippings & old hay and waste or off-grade oilseed & grains, I had learned that a good propane substitute could be made with a little effort and effective production controls. However, I had not attempted to use various petro-fuels as alternatives to conventional ones.
Recently, I began experimenting with various petroleum products in alternative use scenarios. Diesel, for example, can be used as a substitute for kerosene in kerosene heaters or even kerosene and citronella lamps
While the odour of burning diesel is quite obnoxious, diesel heat in a relatively closed space such as a workshop is less risky than using propane heaters. Propane consumes huge amounts of oxygen, and puts out high levels of carbon monoxide, making its use in closed spaces quite dangerous. Diesel, too, has a relatively high flash point, meaning that it is somewhat safer than kerosene if drops are spilled. On the other hand, diesel produces more impurities, and will clog filters and lines more easily.
Last month, I found an ethanol-burning fireplace that claimed to consume 1/3 litre per hour. Since, in Canada, we cannot buy pure ethanol directly, this great “deal” would be valueless, if not for the fact that methanol can be substituted for ethanol. Indeed, when making biodiesel, you may use either ethanol or methanol in the chemical mix.
Methyl hydrate, by the way, is another name for methanol, and can be found in any paint store. At $3.00 or more per litre, though, the price is not attractive. Another option is to buy methanol in bulk (less than 235 litres, as the Dangerous Goods Act restricts transport and storage of larger quantities. Bulk methanol may be obtained at some race tracks and some larger fuel distributors.
The advantage of methanol is that it is not very hygroscopic. That is, it does not attract moisture to the same degree as ethanol. Besides, who wants to waste good whisky by distilling it down to pure ethanol?
Biogas and methane can be used with relatively little risk to the engine in any diesel engine. However, biogas has high sulphate content, and tends to corrode iron products rapidly.
Even manure is not a pure waste product! Well-dried manure will burn, albeit with an unpleasant odour and lots of deposits excreted. Still, it burns a little like compressed & dried peat, so it offers an emergency option for a wood heater.
A word of caution is needed, though. Use of alternative fuels must be a “stopgap” measure only, and must be done with regard to proper safety precautions.

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