The first example of biodiesel conversion was recorded in 1937 when a Belgian professor applied for a patent for a ‘procedure for the transformation of vegetable oils for their use as fuels’. In a phrase, that’s exactly what it means to undergo biodiesel conversion. A vegetable oil, such as soy, canola, palm, or corn oil is processed to be usable in a diesel engine.
But what occurs during biodiesel conversion? Well, the vegetable is chemically reacted with alcohol with the aid of an acid. The acid removes an electron from the vegetable oil, which facilitates the reaction. There are long carbon chains in both vegetable oil and alcohols, such as ethanol or methanol. These chains are exchanged in the process, creating a fuel that is usable in an unmodified engine.
While the actual biodiesel conversion process is more complex than the simple swap outlined above, that exchange is at the heart of what creates biodiesel. The reaction itself proceeds slowly without the aid of catalysts or intense heat and pressure. Research is currently being done on ways to utilize industrial microwaves to aid the conversion of vegetable oils into biodiesel.