Mason Chemists on the Road to Alternative Fuel

Posted: January 10, 2001 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lynn Burke

Decreased oil production and rising fuel prices are renewing interest in alternative fuels. And researchers in George Mason’s Chemistry Department say one solution is as close as your grocery store shelf–that is, soybean oil.

George Mushrush, chair of the department, points to the results of research he and others recently published in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research (a publication of the American Chemical Society) on the use of soybean oil as a blending stock for diesel fuel. “The stuff is absolutely wonderful,” says Mushrush. “We’re looking at all that could be bad, and so far [the results have] turned out excellent.”

The research was a collaborative effort among researchers at the Naval Research Lab, Geo-Centers Inc., and the university. George Mason researchers include doctoral students Janet Hughes and James Wynn, and undergraduate Joseph Sakran.

According to Mushrush, the soybean oil used in the research is the same oil found on grocery store shelves. He says that theoretically you could use the oil to cook french fries, strain it, and then use it again as fuel. The research looked at the use of a blending stock referred to as biodiesel. Biodiesel (chemically called methyl esters) is produced through a reaction of vegetable oil (in this case, soybean oil) or animal fat with methanol in the presence of a catalyst.

Although biodiesel cannot be blended with gasoline or jet fuel because of its molecular weight and its freezing point, Mushrush says it could be used in home heating oil. Biodiesel used in home heating oil yields the same benefits as when used in diesel: It is more stable, less expensive, and cleaner burning. For homeowners with leaky underground oil storage tanks, Mushrush believes the use of a less toxic oil could play a role in future hazardous waste remediation efforts.

See the full story in the January/February issue of the Mason Gazette.

Write to at