Chemists at UC (University of California) Davis have developed a new process that enable oilseed crops such as safflower to be made into a fuel cocktail that could increase yields of bio-diesel by up to 24 per cent.

The method converts both plant oils and carbohydrates into bio-diesel in a single process, and should also improve the performance characteristics of bio-diesel, especially in cold weather.

“Conventional bio-diesel production extracts plant oils and then converts them into fatty acid esters that can be used to power engines,” said Mark Mascal, professor of chemistry at UC Davis and co-author of the paper with postdoctoral researcher Edward Nikitin. That leaves behind the carbohydrate portion of the plant - the sugars, starches, and cellulose that make up stems, leaves, seed husks and other structures.

The new process converts those carbohydrates into chemicals called levulinic acid esters - at the same time and in the same vessel that the oils are converted to fatty acid esters - resulting in a fuel cocktail that performs better at low temperatures than conventional bio-diesel.

The fuel cocktail has a similar boiling range to conventional bio-diesel, but is thinner; it becomes waxy at a lower temperature. Performance at low temperatures is a significant problem with B100 (conventional bio-diesel), Mascal said.

“Our hope is that this blend of levulinate esters and bio-diesel would perform better over a wider range of temperatures than bio-diesel,” Mascal said.

“Levulinate esters are nontoxic and are used as food additives,” he said.

“Costs of the new process may be somewhat higher than for conventional bio-diesel production, but should be offset by improved fuel yields and performance,” he added.