Chemical News

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Catalyst for Improved Biodiesel production

A new catalyst that promises to cut the cost of producing biodiesel fuel from vegetable oils and animal fats by 30% has been developed by Victor Lin, a chemistry professor at Iowa State University.

The solid catalyst replaces the soluble, sodium methoxide catalyst that is currently used for the transesterification of oils in the production of biodiesel fuel. Lin notes that animal fats are a much less expensive feed for biodiesel fuel than vegetable oils — they are about half the price of soybean oil. However, most biodiesel fuel is produced from vegetable oils because the free fatty acids (FFAs) in animal fats impede the function of the sodium methoxide catalyst and form soap that has to be neutralized and washed with water.

Lin’s catalyst consists of 1-┬Ám-dia spheres of mixed oxides that incorporate both acid and base sites. The acidic sites convert the FFAs to biodiesel by Esterification and the base sites convert oil to fuel by transesterification.

The surface area of the honeycomb spheres is more than 900 m2/g, says Lin. He
adds that another major advantage of the catalyst is that it is solid and can be recycled, whereas sodium methoxide is dissolved in the process fluid.

Production of the catalyst is being scaled up by Catilin Inc., a startup company formed by the Iowa State University Research Foundation and Mohr Davidow Ventures. Catilin is also building a pilot plant near Ames to produce 300 gal/d of biodiesel fuel.