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Scientist instrumental in biodiesel development passes away

Dr. Hemendra Basu
Dr. Hemendra Basu

Hemendra Basu, Ph.D., who passed away on October 27 in California at the age of 80, patented a process for creating esters (found in essential oils) from a feedstock that includes a fat or an oil, such as soybeans. This discovery and the subsequent work were instrumental in the development of biodiesel. In 2011, approximately 1 billion gallons of biodiesel were produced from locally grown materials – providing jobs and support to local economies and a shorter, more secure supply line to your community.

Basu was an oils scientist for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) at its Marshall laboratory from 1991-94, when much of the biodiesel development work occurred.

“Basu was instrumental in putting biodiesel on the map,” says Max Norris, AURI’s former director of fats and oil technology, who worked closely with Basu on the development of biodiesel. Norris explains that Basu worked on the functions to improve biodiesel so that it could be used more efficiently and began to address some of the issues that arose during the use of biodiesel during the winter months. “It was a hard sell in the early days as people didn’t see it as a good use of soybean oil, but that changed over the years and now everyone is on the biodiesel bandwagon. We took it a long way from the early days.”

In addition, Basu worked on several grants with the US Bureau of Mines, to examine the health benefits of using soy oil in underground mining engines. Testing showed it was possible to reduce the amount of soot that comes from these engines through the use of methyl soyate. Diesel engine modification is often necessary to run machinery using alternative oils. Methyl soyate (derived from soybean oil), however, has properties similar to diesel fuel that may minimize changes made to diesel engines. He also helped develop a soybean soapstock, which led to the development of a unique soy adjuvant.