New method could repurpose existing equipment, improve the efficiency of biodiesel extraction

Biodiesel production tends to boil down (no pun intended) to one of two methods -- repurposing waste oil to auto-capable fuel or converting purpose-grown feedstock crops to oily biodiesel.

Ultimately, only the latter method is capable of supporting biodiesel production on a broader scale.  However, production tends to suffer from inefficiency due to inconsistent crop oil content and difficulty optimizing the seed-crushing machinery to deal with each harvest's slightly unique oil composition.

But U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) research arm -- the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) -- has come up with an intuitive solution, repurposing near infrared (NIR) reflectance spectroscopy equipment -- a type of chemical measurement device -- to test the oil within seeds within an error of 0.5 to 0.73 percent.

Canola seed
Canola seed [Image Source: Wild Bird General Store]

NIR devices are plentiful, as they've widely been used over the past 30 years in the food industry to measure protein, moisture, and oil levels in whole grain food crops.

The USDA's tests focused on canola -- one flowering plant with oil seeds that's being considered as a biodiesel feedstock candidate.  The 226 canola samples in the study came from Oregon, Washington state, and Montana.  The NIR test equipment was housed at the Columbia Plateau Conservation Research Center in Pendleton, Ore.

The team says that if seed-crushing facilities are equipped with NIR sensors, each harvest can be measured, allowing workers to adjust the choke setting (the opening the oil comes out of) [source] to account for a longer (for less oily seeds) or shorter (for oilier seeds) grinding process.

Canola field
A growing canola crop [Matt Lavin/Image Source: Montana State Univ.]

This would allow more oil to be extracted from less oily crops, lowering costs and reducing land use.  While a very valid field of research, the economic future of biodiesel remains in question given the costs, and questions of engine damage.

Research leader Dan Long and his team published their findings in the peer-reviewed Journal of Near Infrared Spectroscopy.

Source: ARS [USDA research]

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