Can Virginia Tap into California’s Liquid Gold Rush?

by Bill Tracy

Jed Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies struck it rich when his wayward shotgun blast accidently discovered Black Gold. Regrettably, due to his fossil fuel habit, we must now cancel old Jed for his crimes against humanity and his wanton destruction of the planet.

Today there is a newfangled, politically acceptable liquid gold for Jed: corn oil. Not just corn oil, but soybean oil, palm oil, animal fats, grease drippings from McDonalds, and the list goes on and on. Though scientifically known as “triglycerides” to us chemists, we usually just call them “veggie oils”.

In an attempt to reduce carbon emissions, California is giving big financial subsidies to manufacturers of “advanced” biodiesel made from veggie oils. Across the USA, and overseas, too, the rush is on to gather up veggie oils and build plants to make clean diesel for California.

So, I got to wondering. Could Virginia can get a piece of this green gold rush?

To an old engineer like me, biodiesel is an interesting topic. Conventional biodiesel is so easy to make that you can whip it up in your own kitchen (not recommended if you are married). Just mix veggie oil with wood alcohol. A “trans-esterification” reaction occurs, which coverts the veggie oil into biodiesel, and some waste products. This type of biodiesel is already widely used as a blend component.

However, the premium green diesel that California seeks is called “advanced” biodiesel, requiring a more complex chemical process in which the veggie oils are fully hydrogenated, using H2, at high temperature and pressure. This can be accomplished in new “grass roots” processing plants or in re-purposed oil refinery style equipment. In either case, out pops a very clean, paraffin-based diesel fuel. It is chemically equivalent to some of the hydrocarbons already present in regular diesel fuels — imagine separating out the cleanest burning portion of the diesel molecules.

This is what California wants to use in its fleet, until such time as other alternatives such as fuel cell trucks become available.

I don’t know if California’s advanced biodiesel scheme scales up well for implementation in Virginia. For starters, California is expected to suck up all the spare veggie oil supplies. Plus, diesel fuel often has cold weather concerns. Club Med Cali doesn’t need to worry about polar vortexes. Additionally, California’s air stagnation along the coast makes a compelling case for eliminating diesel that is harder to make in Virginia. And then there’s the trivial matter of billions of dollars of subsidies to make the process work. I’m not sure where the money would come from.

Perhaps Virginia can do what companies in other states and countries are doing: make the stuff and ship it to the Left Coast. We could grow more corn or, what I prefer, Canola seed plants with their expansive fields of pretty yellow flowers.

Anyhow, food for thought.

Bill Tracy, a retired engineer, lives in Northern Virginia.