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Building a Better Bio-diesel

Viterbi study seeks best ways to use biological oils as motor fuels
Eric Mankin
November 08, 2006 —
Egolfopoulos: "It is essential that the overall impact of such fuels be evaluated by well thought-out investigations.”
The same oils that fry potatoes are now fueling a rapidly growing number of diesel vehicles. So far, the technology has mostly been improvised but a USC Viterbi School of Engineering study will take the first close look at how to optimize it.

"Based on extensive fundamental studies that have been conducted over the last 20 years or so, we now have a reasonably good understanding of how petroleum-based fuels behave — how they burn and what factors determine their efficiency and emissions," said Fokion Egolfopoulos, a professor at the Viterbi School's aerospace and mechanical engineering department, who is principal investigator of the project.

"We hope in this study to lay the groundwork for a similar understanding of bio-diesel and evaluate what are the consequences of using those alternative untested fuels on both the engine performance and the environment."

The one-year effort, funded by the University of Southern California Future Fuels Initiative, has a six-part experimental plan in which researchers will burn various formulations of bio-diesel under controlled conditions to try to determine what works best.

Bio-diesel is a general term for a product derived from a wide variety of biological oils, from both plants and animals, ranging from lard to canola oil. Conversion of these products to bio-diesel is now done in a wide range of facilities spanning small refineries to garage labs following Internet-posted

Mork Family department chair Theodore Tsotsis is co-principal investigator of the bio-diesel project.
recipes. Used cooking oil from restaurants and food processing facilities is a prime source of raw material.

While diesels are non-fussy machines that can run on many types of fuels, Egolfopoulos says that previous research on petroleum based products has established optimal mixtures that provide the most power with the least amount of emissions. To do the same for bio-diesel, the scientist says, will require basic research on still little-known details of how grease and cooking oil burns.

“The use of bio-fuels as an alternative has been promoted recently by authorities at the local, state and federal level,” write Egolfopoulos and his co-principal investigator, Theodore T. Tsotsis,  chair of the Mork Family department of chemical engineering and materials science. “While attractive, given the current fuel/energy crisis, it is essential that the overall impact of such fuels be evaluated by well thought out investigations.”

The USC Future Fuels Initiative is one of a group of research projects established by USC Provost C. L Max Nikias, which is aimed at reducing global reliance on fossil fuels.  The initiative will allow researchers to develop a cross-disciplinary program to advance the science of alternative fuels and energy conversions, as well as address the economic, social, environmental and policy issues involved in society’s transition to a new energy/fuel paradigm.

Details are at: : http://www.usc.edu/research/initiatives/future_fuels/index.html