Biodiesel in Sierra Leone
May 18, 2008 9:46 AM   Subscribe

A story in three parts from a volunteer in Sierra Leone about the begins of a small homegrown biodiesel industry: getting their vehicle, making fuel for it, and scaling it up. For those curious how it's done, they got their recipes online here.
posted by Upton O'Good (13 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My friend linked me to these guys when they first announced it (he does a lot of freelance, geekcorps type of stuff).

I am really excited projects like this are taking off. Also, before anyone starts harping on the loss of food: The oil is derived from Palm Nuts, which were usually just used as fertilizer or as animal feed. The waste casing, after the nuts were pressed for oil, were still used for pig feed.

A good portion of biodiesel is made this way, as the oil used for the biodiesel I run is also from the waste oil produced from making animal feed. The bigger food/fuel crisis is happening because instead of throwing weight behind a new industry (industrial algae farms, which can even be integrated into sewage processing plants, and one such company in new zealand is optimizing waste treatment plants already existing algae ponds for biodiesel oil extraction), we are having the same industries switch to growing fuel instead of food.
posted by mrzarquon at 10:13 AM on May 18, 2008

mrzarquon: what you say is true for now. However, if biofuels took off, land that otherwise would be used to grow food would be converted to grow the palm nuts or whatever instead. So while this group is using "waste" biomass, that wouldn't be the case in a scaled up operation. Which would, in fact, contribute to food scarcity.
posted by Justinian at 12:03 PM on May 18, 2008

justinian: I don't think mrzarquon meant to imply that the solution was palm oil, specifically, but rather to endorse the use of materials other than human food as biofuel. Note his second paragraph:

>The bigger food/fuel crisis is happening because instead of throwing weight behind a new industry... we are having the same industries switch to growing fuel instead of food.

So I disagree with your statement that if biofuels, as a broad category, took off, we'd have greater food scarcity. We can sidestep the problem by using the food industry that already exists: waste grease and materials from restaurants (or hey, private homes and corporate cafeterias too). Also, do "biofuels" only include plants? Algae are alive, too.

If biofuels from non-food crops were the only thing that took off, they would crowd out food. But we can use them in the form of waste products of the food we already consume. Of course, restaurant grease is probably not enough on its own (though I have no knowledge of the statistics) so I advocate a mixed solution including algae farms, hydroelectric, solar... anything that's clean.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 1:42 PM on May 18, 2008

Algae are plants. And also, you're just not going to get something for nothing on a large scale. These guys are using waste products, but that also means that farmers are going to need to get fertilizer from somewhere else, which might increase food prices slightly (Unless bio-deisel replaces their fuel, making the whole operation cheaper)

But there's only so much you can do with reprocessing waste. Fundamentally, you're going to need to extract energy from the sun. I think solar panels are the best way to do this. You an put them where you can't grow plants for water. Imagine, deserts covered with solar panels, creating hydrogen fuel by electrolysis of water. Photovoltaics are 10 times more efficient then photosynthesis, from what I understand.
posted by delmoi at 3:16 PM on May 18, 2008

delmoi- you can also grow algae in the desert if you have water present. On top of storing solar energy as in the harvestable oil, you can also use it capture waste CO2, take the resulting non oil waste and use it as fertilizer.

While using photovoltaics to store energy is great, and would be a great solution for powering an electrical grid. We still have some issues of storage and transportation of energy (hydrogen gas) and then there is the issue of building and mainstreaming an entirely new vehicle type. (well they exist, but they aren't as mainstream as diesel). With the solar we can do point of presence recharging for plug in electrics, or plug in diesel-electric hybrids, in peoples homes.

However, in terms of algae harvesting, you have to realize that the oil / energy generated from them are an order of magnitude greater (100,000 liters per hectare vs 5,950 liters per hectare for palm oil) than food crops. So you can produce significantly more energy in a smaller area.

Already people are developing ways to use algae to scrub CO2 from coal plants, and also to process waste water, and then harvest the algae crops for biodiesel generation. And since most Hydrogen gas is not made by electrolysis, which is an extremely inefficient way to generate H2, it is actually made from methane gas, which still produces CO2 that has to be stored somewhere.

It is not the only solution, but part of the solution. Micro hydro providing localized power is another. Solar and wind also.

What I would personally want to have would be a micro hydro plant powering my own property, along with an algae greenhouse to process the waste water from my house, using the biodiesel as a long term energy storage solution, to power farm vehicles and transportation, possibly heating oil also. The linked micro hydro solution goes for $100k US, a self maintaining biodiesel reactor is around $10k, along with building a hydro setup and greenhouse, one could setup a pretty stable off the grid community with sustainable farming for under a million dollars (minus cost of land).

That is something that could really disturb the established power and energy base. All the big pushes is still for a centralized power management and distribution system that people can make money off. Not for people to be self sufficient.
posted by mrzarquon at 4:46 PM on May 18, 2008

I am the volunteer in Sierra Leone helping with the project. I have to inform you that Sierra Leone is the poorest country in the world (UN's HDI index) and so transportation is an extremely high cost relative to income and quickly becoming prohibitive. Fuel is also badly needed for generators (there is no electricity), fuel is needed for cooking as the favoured alternate is sourced from the rapidly diminishing forests, lighting is frequently kerocene fuelled and becoming scarce etc. etc.. Small scale bio-diesel done on a village level seems to be a good idea and provides badly needed employment. The critics seem to focus on the effect of food production and yes there is a serious shortage of the staple food (read rice) in Sierra Leone - mostly it's imported (another story). However I am told that 80% of Sierra Leone land is not cultivated but is very fertile. This makes sense based on my extensive travels through the country and some knowledge of it's history. Thus the notion that here, in producing bio diesel we are somehow taking away from food production simply is not the case. There is a huge proportion of people sitting idle and who could be working on farms. The reasons why they are not is another subject for my blog. Lastly I agree that in a large scale, perhaps even palm nuts could perhaps compete for food and this is the reason we are going ahead with planting the jatropha - intercropping with the palm. Any comments or referals would be welcome since we are working in the dark - both figuratively and in reality.
posted by pjfishing at 4:50 PM on May 18, 2008 [4 favorites]

pjfishing- Welcome to metafilter. I am really impressed with your work, and I think you hit on the right note: it is providing work, energy independence and employment for the local residents. Once the demand grows, there sounds like there is enough land to encourage the development of, and actually enable the use of via machinary, to increase both the food and fuel output.

I think you might want to get in touch with the BioLyle folks, they are based out of Seattle, I met a few weeks ago at an alternatives fuel event, and they manufacture biodiesel reactors / processors. I am sure they can provide with you more expertise and advice on how to refine your own setup, and possibly get you some materials and supplies for the area. Here is their section on their own process.
posted by mrzarquon at 5:09 PM on May 18, 2008

Thanks for the referral mrzarquon; we need all the help we can get, in particular on the design issues for the reactor. Working in this part of west Africa is difficult as you can imagine and the internet is our sole portal.
posted by pjfishing at 5:29 PM on May 18, 2008

delmoi- you can also grow algae in the desert if you have water present.

If there's water present, how is it a desert?
posted by delmoi at 6:31 PM on May 18, 2008

[ok, going to try this again, this time without a beer in hand]

delmoi- I see now your comment implied generating electricity in the desert and then using it to power electrolysis somewhere there is water.

The algae farms can grow in covered areas, so you could have greenhouse like structures that are actually solar bioreactors. For water you could set them up at the sewage pants for vegas and other desert cities. The water is full of nutrients, and you have plenty of sun year round to power the conversion. And of course, you can use solar to power the facility also.

This page talks specifically about the efficiency in producing and transporting hydrogen for vehicular power vs algae/biodiesel generation (from a professor who is researching using algae in sewage waste water treatment plants). The big thing is biodiesel from algae may be feasible in the next 5-10 years, hydrogen from renewable power is still a ways off. We already have diesel vehicles and a refueling system in place.
posted by mrzarquon at 7:26 PM on May 18, 2008

in producing bio diesel we are somehow taking away from food production simply is not the case.

It is still hard for me to come to the idea that even on the global level this is the case. Instead of everyone running around saying "Biodiesel sucks 'cuz it shorts out are food supplies!" Yet oil prices are exhorbitantly high and nobody points to that as a reason. Or even open a discussion into the fact that Cargill and ADM have major input into the idea of corn being used as the source to produce these fuels. Corn being probably the most inneficient of any of the possible sources.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:44 PM on May 18, 2008

"our" food supplies
posted by P.o.B. at 8:45 PM on May 18, 2008

Metafilter: sewage pants for vegas
posted by dubold at 6:49 AM on May 19, 2008

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