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"Fry Octane" -- The Discovery Files

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Two chemists at Brown University have streamlined the conversion of waste vegetable oil into biodiesel, eliminating the need to use corrosive chemicals to perform the reactions.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Greasing the Wheels.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: deep fat fryer) We've all heard of biodiesel fuel being made from recycled cooking oil. There's almost something comforting about getting extra mileage (Sound effect: diesel engine car) out of the oil that made your chicken extra crispy. But conventional methods of conversion aren't exactly environmentally friendly. They require harsh chemicals like sulfuric acid, and either potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. The way we convert now is costly, time-consuming, and inefficient.

Two chemists at Brown University have simplified the conversion of vegetable oil into biodiesel and have eliminated the need for corrosive chemicals. Their process is six times faster than the way it's done now, uses less energy and can be done in a single reaction vessel.

Their approach was to find safe, non-toxic catalysts for the two chemical reactions necessary. They chose two metals commonly used in organic chemistry.

Instead of using a thermal heater to heat the oil, the scientists used a microwave reactor. Result: less energy required, because the conversion happens faster.

It's grease to gas in about 20 minutes on a small scale in the lab. The team hopes to demonstrate viability on a large industrial scale.

(Sound effect: drive-up "you want fries with that?") Don't go supersizing your fast food order to further the cause there's plenty of vegetable oil for this cheap, clean, safe method of conversion to biodiesel. I like to call it "fry-octane" fuel.

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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