Alligator fat, along with other animal fats, could one day fuel your car and other machinery, suggests new research presented today at the 247th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.

In searching for alternative biodiesel materials, researcher Thomas Junk of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and colleagues discovered that gator fat has been piling up. Alligators are now farmed for their skins, meat and other uses, but no one thought to use the fat until now.

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There’s apparently a lot of alligator fat around too. Millions of pounds of gator fat are thrown out each year, according to an American Chemical Society press release.

“Conversion of animal fat to biodiesel has been around for some time, but the traditional biodiesel process generates significant quantities of solid waste,” Junk was said in the release. “Our new method creates hardly any such residues.”

Fat from such common sources as chicken, pork and beef also can be turned into biodiesel, but the new method improves the conversion technique.

The new process requires a device known as a “flow reactor.” These usually combine the fats with certain chemicals. Adequate agitation is needed to maintain a certain temperature and chemical composition for the complete conversion reaction to occur.

In this case, however, methanol was heated to high pressures and temperatures. This replaced the chemical catalyst additives that are normally included. The catalysts leave behind waste residue, so eliminating them also eliminates much of the waste.

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The gator fat was added to the reactor just as is, in its raw state, saving time and effort. The machine turns it into a slurry, with the methanol pumped in.

Junk said that “the reaction converting alligator fat to biodiesel happened within a few minutes. That’s important for commercial manufacturing, where you want to produce as much fuel as quickly as possible.”

The process is very similar to well-established fuel-making methods, such as producing ethanol from corn. The 700 million gallons of biodiesel produced in the United States (2008 data) came from soybean oil, though. I personally think that’s a better option, but the researchers point out that there’s growing concern that using soybeans and other food crops for biodiesel could raise food prices.

They next plan to test their biodiesel production method using chicken fat and cow fat.

Photo: Ianaré Sévi, Wikimedia Commons