Fuel is the thing with feathers. Hoping to find an efficient way to help power automobiles and trucks, researchers at the University of Arkansas say they have developed a way to convert chicken fat to a biodiesel fuel.
"We're trying to expand the petroleum base," said Brian Mattingly, a graduate student in chemical engineering. "Five to 20 percent blending of biodiesel into petroleum-based diesel significantly reduces our dependence on foreign oil."
Mattingly's research allows biodiesel producers to assess different materials to see what works best. Producers will be able to choose the best way to convert different grades of chicken fat into fuels.
R.E. Babcock, a professor of chemical engineering, said chicken-fat fuels are better for the environment and the machines.
"They burn better, create less particulate matter and actually lubricate and clean things like cylinders, pistons and fuel lines," Babcock said.
Traditionally, biodiesel producers have used refined products like soybean oil because they are easier to convert to fuels. However, the refining process makes soybean oil more expensive — and fuel producers must compete with grocers for the oil supply.
Chicken fat can be a less-expensive substitute because it is available at a low cost. However, fatty acids in raw chicken fat can lead to the creation of soap during the various chemical processes.
In his studies, Mattingly used high-quality fat (less than 2 percent fatty acid content) and low-quality, feed-grade fat (6 percent fatty acid content) obtained from Tyson Foods Inc. plants in Clarksville and Scranton. The high-quality fat is more expensive than the feed-grade fat, but both are less expensive than soybean oil.
It took different steps to refine the different fats, but it could be done, Mattingly said.
"The project demonstrated that there is a very fine line between facilitating an adequate reaction and generating so much soap that the biodiesel yield is diminished," Mattingly said. "Basically, deciding which method to use comes down to economics."
Michael Popp, an associate professor of agricultural economics, said it is too early to tell if making biodiesel fuel from chicken fat is economically feasible.