The power derived from mechanical engines can be used to grind grain, pump water, and generate electricity. These engines often run on diesel or gasoline. But in developing countries, diesel is often expensive and not easily accessible to people in remote villages far from petrol stations.

PhD student Matt Basinger and his team are working on modifying an engine to run on vegetable oil instead of diesel. This will enable remote villages to power their engines more reliably with locally grown products instead of fossil fuels.

The most common stationary diesel engines in rural Africa and India are single-cylinder, low-speed designs similar to the British Lister engine. They are older, purely mechanical designs popular for their reliability, longevity, and inexpensive price. Common engine sizes are between 5 and 16 horsepower, which can provide a community of 300 to 1500 people all of its agricultural and potable water processing.

Our progress so far: To get a diesel engine to run on vegetable oil, we need to significantly reduce its viscosity to levels as close to diesel’s as possible. To reach this viscosity, the vegetable oils need to be heated to a temperature greater than 200° F before entering the engine’s combustion chamber. To accomplish this preheating, we use waste heat being generated by the engine instead of electrical heating. This also maximizes the efficiency of the system.

What we’re busy with now: The Jatropha adoption study. Since jatropha could be a cheap form of vegetable oil, we’re studying the factors that affect whether or not people are willing to grow and use jatropha oil instead of diesel.