In the summer of 1938, a bus ran the commercial bus line between Brussels and Leuven
(Louvain) in Belgium powered by a fuel that
had probably never been tested before. This
fuel consisted of the ethyl esters of palm oil,
thus derived from a feedstock that certainly is
not native to Belgium. How did this development come about?
On April 1, 1935, a royal decree created a Commission
on Fuels (“Commission des Carburants”) within the Belgian
Department of Colonies [ 1]. The objective was to systematically study the production and utilization of fuels of local origin
in the Belgian Congo, which was Belgium’s major African colony. The background, similar to that of other work from these
times aimed at using vegetable oils as fuels [ 2], was to provide
a degree of energy independence to the African colony of a
THE “SUPER 8” OF THE
COMMISSION ON FUELS
As of early 1940, this commission was chaired by Camille
Camus, a Director General in the Ministry of Colonies. The
seven other members included the chief of staff (chef de service) of the Ministry of Colonies, an engineer for military construction, and The Director General for agriculture in the
Ministry of Colonies, Marcel van den Abeele (1898–1980), who
wrote the introduction of the detailed 1942 four-chapter publication on this commissioned work from which significant parts
of this article are taken (the authors of the chapters are not
directly indicated) [ 1].
Four members of the commission held academic positions, two with backgrounds in organic chemistry, one chemical engineer, and a mechanical engineer. These four academics
were Edmond Connerade, a professor of chemistry at the
Faculté polytechnique in Mons whose publications include
work on hydrogenation as well as fuel-related uses of coal;
and the first
• August 31, 2017, marks the 80th anniversary
of what was probably the first report/patent
on what is considered to be biodiesel today.
• This patent for a “procedure for the
manufacture of a heavy fuel,” was issued
in 1937 to Georges Chavanne, a professor
of chemistry at the University of Brussels.
Although this kind of fuel would not be
investigated again until after the energy crises
of the 1970s, the reasons for and the results
of the technical investigations from the 1930s
that led to Chavanne’s patent are very similar
to those of current biodiesel research.
• This is the story of the collective effort
that inspired the first biodiesel patent, the
underlying chemistry of the process, and why
the biodiesel Chavanne made still meets the
definition of biodiesel today.