"If I were to describe biodiesel in one sentence, I would say that it’s all about simply trapping the sun’s energy. If you think about it, except for nuclear energy, all the energy in our world can be traced from the Sun. "
The Sun is this power that just gives and gives and gives without expecting anything in return. The best part to its power is that it seems to have an infinite source of fuel stock. When you think about how sunlight actually creates energy, it really would blow the mind because it’s so simple.
Radioactive energy, as far as nuclear reactors are concerned, produce energy when the atom is split. In other words, energy is produced when there’s division happening. With the sun’s energy, on the other hand, it’s the other way around. Energy is produced when things are added together when they are fused. This is called fusion.
It really is mind-blowing because when you fuse certain types of hydrogen together, it actually creates a tremendous amount of energy, given its mass. It is no surprise that the world was shocked and amazed when Albert Einstein came up with the equation E=mc2. That equation highlights the fact that a huge amount of energy can be produced using a small form when you split an atom.
As dramatic as that may be, there’s actually a lot more energy produced when you combine simple atoms into another type of atom, and this is fusion. I highlight all of these because the Sun is the ultimate source of all our energy.
Now, the question then becomes: How do we store that energy? How do we trap it in such a way that we can come up with a form of energy that we can readily process? This is where plants come in.
Believe it or not, when you eat a steak, you are eating the Sun’s energy. How come? Well, that cow, which was the source of your steak, ate grass the grass for energy. The grass that it ate, in turn, is color green because it uses the green pigment on its leaves to trap the sunlight coming from the Sun. Ultimately, everything goes back to the Sun.
The essence of biodiesel simply works with this natural process. It’s all about trapping the Sun’s energy, but instead of eating the plant’s leaves and stems, we process the seeds that it produces.
Plants are actually are quite inefficient trappers of Sun energy. Only a relatively small fraction of the Sun’s energy is trapped by the plant, and a lot of the trapped energy goes into the sugars in the plant. However, for certain types of plants to reproduce, they have to produce seeds. They have to store away enough fat in the seeds, so that the seeds remain alive for an extended period of time.
You have to understand that seeds are actually alive. They breathe. They’re not doing anything, definitely not moving, but they’re alive, and they have to stay alive for years. It is no surprise then that plants pack a lot of fat into the seed. Whether you’re talking about a small hemp seed, a mustard seed, or a coconut, there is a tremendous amount of fat there on a gram per gram basis.
When that seed is planted in the ground, that’s when all hell breaks loose because all that fat is now being accessed by the plant, so it can grow leaves, send out roots, and otherwise do whatever it needs to do to eventually independently produce food. It will make the switch from being supported by the fat stored in the seed, to the nutrients it’s pulling from its root system, as well as the starch it’s generating from its leaves.
That’s how it works, and biodiesel really is all about looking for certain plant varieties that tend to pack their seeds with a tremendous and abnormally high level of oil. Biodiesel, therefore, is all about identifying these plans and then extracting this oil in an economically efficient manner.
That is the essence of biodiesel, and also highlights the primary difficulty of biodiesel as a fuel source. It really all boils down to economics. Not all highly fatty seeds make economic sense to turn into biodiesel. It all really depends on your economic infrastructure.
For example, palm oil used to be an economically feasible energy source in Southeast Asia because of the huge palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. On the other hand, palm oil in the United States, especially the northern regions, don’t make much sense. People can plant palm oil, but it won’t make economic sense. Do you see how this works? You have to factor in economical regionalism for all these to click and make phenomenal sense.