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Vegetable Oil Economy

Vegetable oil economy deals with the potential of vegetable oil to replace fossil fuels in the economy and how it compares to other potential replacements. Vegetable oils are the basis of biodiesel, which can be used like conventional diesel. Some vegetable oil blends are used in unmodified vehicles but straight vegetable oil needs specially prepared vehicles which have a method of heating the oil to reduce its viscosity. The list of vegetable oils is long, the vegetable oil market is growing and the availability of biodiesel around the World is increasing.

Future of Energy for World Economy
There is a limited amount of fossil fuel inside the Earth. Since the current world energy resources and consumption is mainly fossil fuels, we are very dependent on them for both transportation and electric power generation. The Hubbert peak theory predicts that oil depletion will result in oil production dropping off in the not too distant future. As time goes on our economy will have to transition to some alternative fuels. Fossil fuels have solved two problems which could be separately solved in the future: the problem of a source of primary energy and of energy storage. Along with straight vegetable oil and biodiesel, some energy technologies that could play an important part in the future include :

hydrogen economy
methanol economy
ethanol economy
lithium economy
zinc economy
electron economy
liquid nitrogen economy
solar power / photovoltaics
wind power
fission power
fusion power
compressed air energy storage
flywheel energy storage
Environmentally Friendly Fuel

Plants use sunlight and photosynthesis to take CO2 out of the Earth's atmosphere to make vegetable oil. The same CO2 is then put back after it is burned in the engine. Thus vegetable oil does not increase the CO2 in the atmosphere, and does not contribute to the problem of greenhouse gas. It is really a way of catching and storing solar power. It is a true renewable energy.

Burning fossil fuels releases sulfur dioxide and other harmful air pollution.Because vegetable oil has not been inside the earth for millions of years, it is not contaminated with things like sulfur and burns much cleaner, even than Ultra low sulphur diesel. Burning fossil fuels also contributes to the greenhouse gas problem.

Note that if fossil fuels are used in any aspect of production and distribution (tractors, fuel trucks, etc.), then there would be some contribution to pollution. For it to be 100% non-polluting all aspects of vegetable oil production would have to be non-polluting as well.

Vegetable oil is safer to use and store than gasoline, diesel, hydrogen, ethanol, or methanol as it has a higher flash point. It is biodegradable, so a spill is not such a problem. It is not toxic, in fact it is edible. The standard cooking oil is a mixture of vegetable oils, and it is safe to put in a pan over an open flame in your kitchen. This is not something that would be safe with most fuels.

Generation and Storage

Some systems address energy storage problem, like hydrogen economy, batteries, compressed air energy storage, and flywheel energy storage but are more open on the question of how the primary energy is first created. In Vegetable oil the creation and storage are tied together. But the cost to store a given amount of energy using a gas tank and vegetable oil is relatively cheap compared to the cost of storing the same amount of energy in another system like batteries. In the same way that gasoline powered cars generally have longer range than cars using another system, vegetable oil powered cars will too.

Type of Vegetable Oil

The list of vegetable oils article discusses which types of vegetable oil are used for fuel and where different types are grown.See article "List o f  Vegetable oil".


For transportation the energy density and cost to store the energy are important. If the density is low or the cost is too high it is not practical to make vehicles with reasonable range. Vegetable oil and biodiesel are close to regular diesel.

Another issue for a new fuel is a Catch-22 problem. If you need expensive new infrastructure before people will make cars running on a new fuel, and you need new cars before people will build the infrastructure, how can you ever make the transition? With vegetable oil this is not nearly the problem that it is with some other fuels. The transition from oil based transportation to vegetable oil based transportation could be gradual and relatively easy compared to hydrogen, ethanol, and most other alternatives.

 Vegetable oil is used for transportation in 3 different ways:

Vegetable oil blends - Mixing vegetable oil with diesel lets users get some of the advantages of burning vegetable oil and is often done with no modification to the vehicle. 

Biodiesel - If vegetable oil is transesterified it becomes biodiesel. Biodiesel burns like normal diesel and works fine in any diesel engine. The name just indicates that the fuel came from vegetable oil.

Straight vegetable oil - Straight vegetable oil works in diesel engines if it is heated first. Some diesel engines already heat their fuel, others need a small electric heater on the fuel line. How well it works depends on the heating system, the engine, the type of vegetable oil (thinner is easier), and the climate (warmer is easier). Some data is available on results users are seeing. ] As vegetable oil has gotten more popular as a fuel, engines are being designed to handle it better. The Elsbett engine is designed to run on straight vegetable oil. However, as of the start of 2007, it seems that there are not any production vehicles warrantied for burning straight vegetable oil. Also there is no specification for what fuel-grade vegetable oil is (things like maximum-water-content, energy content, etc). At this point straight vegetable oil is only a niche or experimental market.

The transition can start with biodiesel and vegetable oil blends, since these work today. Diesel has about 4% more kJ/litre (BTU/gallon) than soya vegetable oil. Converting vegetable oil to biodiesel adds to the price (in 2004 about 4.2 US cents/litre (16 cents/gallon) for gas and electricity and 3.7 US cents/litre (14 cents/gallon) for capital costs). This is more than 4%, so it is expected that the price of biodiesel will always be higher than that of vegetable oil. After there are production cars that can use straight vegetable oil and a standard type at gas stations, consumers will probably choose it over biodiesel, since it will be cheaper. So the transition to vegetable oil can happen in stages.

Electricity Generation

Vegetable oil is a convenient safe way to store energy for transportation and is similar to the way things have been done. For electricity generation these things are not so important. The most important thing is cost for the electricity produced. The World coal reserves are far larger than the World oil reserves. So replacing the coal used in powerplants is not as urgent as replacing the oil used for transportation. The motivation to use vegetable oil for power generation is much less than for transportation. Other methods, like nuclear power, fusion power, wind power, solar power, may provide cheaper electricity, so vegetable oil may only be used in peaking power plants and small power plants, as diesel is limited to today. There is at least one 5 MW power plant that runs on biodiesel.

Where there is existing electricity generation using fossil fuels, there is a source of sterile CO2. This makes algaculture much easier. To grow algae you need lots of CO2, but if you get it from air you will also get all kinds of other organisms, some of which eat algae. Getting it from a smokestack works out really well. You can grow algae with a high oil content and then harvest them for vegetable oil. Several commercial pilot plants are under construction. One could imagine running the powerplant off the vegetable oil they produce, but it is probably more profitable to run the plant on coal and sell the vegetable oil.

Market / Cost / Price / Taxes
In some countries, filling stations sell bio-diesel more cheaply than conventional diesel.Availability of biodiesel around the World is improving. The US government has recognized biodiesel as the fastest growing alternative fuel in 2006.It is estimated that by 2010 the market for biodiesel will be 7.5 billion litres (2 billion gallons) in the U.S and 9.5 billion litres (2.5 billion gallons) in Europe.Biodiesel currently has 3% of the diesel market in Germany and is the number 1 alternative fuel.

Vegetable oil for biodiesel can cost as little as $1/gallon. The price of palm oil in Malaysia is 1450 ringgit/tonne. This is 1.45 ringgit per kg, 41.5 US cents per kg ($415/2205 lbs or $0.188/lb).There are about 900 grams per litre (7.5 lbs per gallon) of vegetable oil.  So current price in Malaysia is about 37 US cents per litre ($0.188*7.5=$1.41/gallon).

Soybean Oil is traded on the Chicago Board Of Trade.

Much of the fuel price at the pump is due to fuel tax. If you buy vegetable oil at the grocery store it does not have such high taxes. So at times people have bought vegetable oil at the store for their cars because it was cheaper. They did this in spite of the fact that it was illegal to use in a car since no fuel tax had been paid on it.

A gas station sells many gallons of fuel at once, without any package. If vegetable oil  is sold the same way it could cost less than it does sold by the gallon in a store.

Since vegetable oil (even as biodiesel) does not contribute to greenhouse gas, governments may tax it much less than gasoline as they have done with ethanol. This would help them reach Kyoto protocol targets.

Production in Sufficient Quantity
African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensisThe World production of vegetable oil in 2004/5 was 387.7 million tonnes. Much of this is from Oil Palm, and Oil Palm production is growing at 5% per year. At about 7.5 lbs/gallon and 2204 lbs/tonne this is about 114 billion gallons. Currently vegetable oil is mostly used in food and some industrial uses with a small percentage used as fuel.

In 2004 the US consumed 530 billion litres (140 billion gallons) of gasoline and 150 billion litres (40 billion gallons) of diesel. In biodiesel it says oil palm produces 5940 litres/hectare (635 gallons/acre) of palm oil each year. To make 180 billion gallons of vegetable oil each year would take 115 million hectares (283 million acres). This is 1.15 million square kilometres (443,000 sq-miles) or a square of land 1070 kilometres (666 miles) on a side.

Algaculture could potentially produce far more oil per acre.Genetic modifications to Soybeans are already being used. Genetic modifications and breeding can increase vegetable oil yields.

Environmental Impact
Jungle burned for agriculture in southern Mexico.There is concern that the current growing demand for vegetable oil is causing deforestation, with old forests being replaced with Oil Palms. Vegetable oil production would have to increase substantially to replace gasoline and diesel. With current technology such an increase in production would have a substantial environmental impact.

When land is cleared it is often burned, which releases lots of CO2. An acre of established forest may remove more CO2 from the air each year than an acre of Oil Palms. So replacing a forest with Oil Palms may result in leaving more CO2 in the atmosphere. The group Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is trying to address this problem.

Urgency of Transition

Optimists View: As oil gets more expensive, other technologies will compete on price and replace oil. The transition will be on the order of 50 years. This should be enough time to figure out how to make lots of vegetable oil. If this does not work then fusion power and batteries or something else will work out.

Pessimists View: The effects of even a small drop in production can be devastating. For instance, during the 1973 oil crisis, world production of oil going down around 5% caused the price of oil to nearly quadruple.The environmental impact in terms of deforestation would be disastrous. We need to change our ways so we don't need so much fuel.For example, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles use much less fuel.

Net energy gain

To evaluate potential sources of primary energy it is useful to look at the net energy gain or EROEI. Note though that when photovoltaics technology was younger, more energy went into making solar cells than they would be producing in their lifetime! But now solar cells achieve net energy gain numbers of 10 to 30. So these are current numbers but may change as the technology changes.

Ethanol economy 1.09 to 1.34
Biodiesel 3.2 
Vegetable oil - Better/higher than Biodiesel since less processing


See also related articles in

Selected Articles

List Of Vegetable Oils
Industrial Uses Of Vegetable Oil
First Generation Biofuels
Vegetable Oil used as Fuel
Uses of Bentonite
Biofuels As Alternative Sources of Energy
Renewable Fuels For Alternative Energy
Multipurpose oils also used as biofuel
Coconut Oil
Tropical Tradition Virgin Coconut Oil Highest in Antioxidants Tests Reveal
น้ำมันงา - Sesame Oil
Uses Of Soybeans
Corn Oil - น้ำมันข้าวโพด
Rice Bran Oil - น้ำมันรำข้าว
Alternative Fuel - Biodiesel Making In-Roads
Are Volkswagen Cars Compatible With Biodiesel Fuel?
University Research Into Alternative Energy
Self Esteem Determines Who We Are
Building Your Self Esteem
Making People Happy Helps The Person And Others Build Self Esteem
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