Fuel made from farm crops has been around for years, but a University of Georgia agricultural engineer has found a new use for alternative-fuel crops.
John Goodrum says biodiesel is a great industrial-strength cleanser.
For 20 years the researcher with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences has studied biodiesel, an environmentally friendly alternative fuel derived from crops like peanuts, corn, soybeans and canola.
Looking for ways to open up the market for the crop-based fuel, he recently began focusing his research on new uses for biodiesel.
Less Toxic and Environmentally Friendly
"Many industrial-strength cleaners are chlorinated and contain chemicals linked to cancer," Goodrum said. "The solvents used to remove grease from cars and the cleansers used by commercial laundries are very toxic to humans."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration have begun restricting the use of such cleansers, he said.
In his Athens, Ga., lab, Goodrum found that biodiesel works great as an alternative to these harsh cleansers and is much less toxic.
"A number of compounds in biodiesel can do these cleaning jobs and are much more benign," he said. "Using agricultural products as cleansers isn't a totally new concept. After all, pine cleansers are pine-sap-based."
Goodrum said a new soybean-based household cleansing product is already being marketed in the Midwest.
"It's been well received because it's natural, benign and much safer to use around children," Goodrum said. "Many cleansers have toxic vapors and are a touch carcinogenic. You wouldn't want to have them around curious young children."
Goodrum is also searching for new uses for many plant oils. "For instance," he said, "five different kinds of oils could be separated from crude peanut oul and made into cleansers with different uses."
A Totally New Oil
One of Goodrum's students, Dan Geller, has uncovered a totally new plant oil.
"It comes from the cuphae plant, a weed native to Georgia," said Goodrum. "This oil is not yet well characterized. Unlike other oils, it sloshes in the freezer. It just doesn't freeze."
Goodrum and Geller are studying ways this new oil can be used.
Overall, Goodrum's work is dedicated to agriculture in Georgia and across the nation.
"My work has focused on searching for ways to add value to Georgia's crops," he said. "Through chemical engineering, we can convert crops into valuable products, like biodiesel, that aren't toxic to humans or harmful to the environment."
Not Giving Up On Biodiesel
Although his new research focuses on plant-oil-based cleansers, Goodrum hasn't given up on biodiesel as a fuel.
"Because biodiesel burns cleaner, buses fueled with it don't create black clouds of smoke," he said. "More and more cities are choosing to use biodiesel in their bus lines for this reason. But the price is still higher than for traditional fuels."
Goodrum says biodiesel is the perfect fuel for confined spaces like coal mines and warehouses.
"If the air is cleaner, the workers aren't coughing and choking all day. It's a healthier work environment," he said. "Biodiesel is also being used on pleasure ships. This way the passengers aren't breathing diesel vapors."
With biodiesel, accidental oil spills don't become major emergencies, either. If any residue enters the water, microbes eat it up, Goodrum said, since the fuel is plant-based.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)