Human Flower Project
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Sunflower Oil, It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas
Farmers in the Four Corners are growing dryland sunflowers now for a biodiesel center due to open next year.
Not Ready for Biodiesel?
Timothy Young’s Sunflower Car
Photo: Serious Wheels
Is biodiesel a go? It depends whom you ask.
The idea of turning plant oils into engine fuels is more than a century old. Rudolph Diesel revved up a crowd at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris running an engine on peanut oil. But the rest is fossil history. “Diesel died (in) 1913 before his vision of a vegetable-oil-powered engine was fully realized.”
For obvious reasons, there’s renewed interest and investigation these days, with petroleum-poor Europe taking the lead. Today, however, we read of a new biodiesel enterprise in, of all places, the American West. Two dozen farmers in Dolores County, Colorado, are growing dryland sunflowers, to be processed for oil at a facility in the San Luis Valley. Project manager Jeff Berman told the Cortez Journal that “approximately 60,000 dryland and irrigated acres would be needed to sustain the production of 2.5 to 3 million gallons of seed oil,” which once turned into fuel could service customers “from Farmington and Aztec, (Colorado) to Price, Utah.”
Photo: Bob Fitzgerald, for Cortez Journal
Are you biofuels foolish? Journey to Forever is a fascinating website about many aspects of biodiesel and its potential. It was here we discovered that several other beloved flowering plants—poppies, lupine and calendula—have also shown promise as fuel producers. For you chemists, there’s good info on such things as relative viscosities and “melting ranges.” Slick!
Before you shred your Texaco card, however, consider nay-sayer David Pimentel, a professor of agriculture and ecology at Cornell. He argues, “There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel.” Pimentel says that turning plants into biodiesel fuel uses more energy than the power they put out. “Sunflower plants require 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced,” he writes. Further discouragement: North Dakota State University studies got all gummed up. “Sunflower and other oils mixed with diesel fuel (produced) significant buildup on piston sidewalls, stuck rings and in a few cases, broken rings.”
Meanwhile, the big seed heads are forming and the silos are filling up in the Four Corners. Let’s hope engineers are working on a no-stick engine.