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Finding A Better Way To Make Biodiesel

Iowa State scientists are using chemistry and nanotechnology to create a better way to make biodiesel. Photo by Bob Elbert, Iowa State University
by Staff Writers
Ames IO (SPX) Jun 21, 2006
They're only 250 billionths of a meter in diameter. But fill them with the right chemistry and Iowa State scientists say the tiny nanospheres they've developed could revolutionize how biodiesel is produced. The researchers are after a new, high-tech catalyst that takes some of the energy, labor and toxic chemicals out of biodiesel production.

They've come up with a technology that works in the laboratory.

And now they're working with the West Central Cooperative in Ralston to test their discoveries on a larger scale. They're also working to establish a company that would move the new technology into biorefineries.

The Iowa State research team is led by Victor Lin, an associate professor of chemistry. The team also includes George Kraus and John Verkade, both University Professors of chemistry at Iowa State. The researchers are part of Iowa State's Center for Catalysis.

Their project is being supported by a $1.8 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a $120,000, two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and a $140,000 grant from the Grow Iowa Values Fund.

"This is a project that's definitely relevant to the state's economy," Lin said. "I thought as a scientist I could contribute something to the state."

Current biodiesel production technology reacts soy oil with methanol using toxic, corrosive and flammable sodium methoxide as a catalyst. Getting biodiesel out of the chemical mixture requires acid neutralization, water washes and separation steps. It's a tedious process that dissolves the catalysts so they can't be used again, Lin said.

So Lin and his research team started looking for technologies that would create an easier, more efficient and more economical process. They were also hoping to find technologies that would effectively make biodiesel out of raw materials such as used restaurant oils and animal fats - materials that are much cheaper than soy oil, but also contain free fatty acids that can't be converted to biodiesel by current production methods.

Lin has developed a nanotechnology that accurately controls the production of tiny, uniformly shaped silica particles. Running all the way through the particles are honeycombs of relatively large channels that can be filled with a catalyst that reacts with soybean oil to create biodiesel.

The particles can also be loaded with chemical gatekeepers that encourage the soybean oil to enter the channels where chemical reactions take place. The results include faster conversion to biodiesel, a catalyst that can be recycled and elimination of the wash step in the production process.

Lin's particles can also be used as a catalyst to efficiently convert animal fats into biodiesel by creating a mixed oxide catalyst that has both acidic and basic catalytic sites. Acidic catalysts on the particle can convert the free fatty acids to biodiesel while basic catalysts can convert the oils into fuel.

And the particles themselves are environmentally safe because they are made of calcium and sand.

"We're excited about this and so is West Central," Lin said. "This serves as an example of how nanotechnology can be useful for advancing an industry that's not that high-tech. And this allows our students from the Midwest - some of them from farms - to learn a new kind of technology that doesn't take them away from home."

Larry Breeding, the general manager of biodiesel operations for the West Central Cooperative, said the technology shows promise for improving the efficiency of biodiesel production. But he said it still needs to be tested at larger and larger scales to see if the economic benefits are there.

Tests also need to prove if the technology works in continuous-flow production rather than batch-by-batch production.

"This research is a real boon to us," Breeding said. "We don't have a research campus. So we have to rely on academia and we've leaned on the people at Iowa State very heavily for a lot of this work."

Japan to turn to biofuels to curb greenhouse emissions

Meanwhile, Japan will launch an initiative for 40 percent of cars to run on biofuels within five years in a bid to slash greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil, a newspaper said Tuesday.

Vehicles account for about 20 percent of energy consumption in Japan which is nearly entirely dependent on the Middle East for oil, a major economic burden amid soaring crude prices.

The Environment Ministry will launch a project to boost the production of ethanol made from sugarcane produced on Miyako island in Japan's southern island chain of Okinawa, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun business daily said.

by the year to March 2009, all vehicles in Miyako will run on gasohol, a blend of gasoline which under Japanese guidelines includes up to three percent biomass resources such as sugarcane or wood waste, the report said.

The government hopes for 40 percent of cars to use biofuels by the year to March 2010, the daily said, quoting anonymous government sources.

The government will allocate part of the around 300 billion yen (2.6 billion dollars) for the project, the newspaper said.

Officials declined immediate comment on the report.

Japan has recently championed the campaign against global warming and is the home of the Kyoto Protocol, the first treaty mandating cuts in greenhouse emissions.

However, in the midst of an economic turnaround, many industries risk failing to meet Japan's requirement under the treaty to cut gas emissions six percent by 2012 from the 1990 level.

Australia and the United States, the world's biggest greenhouse gas source, both boycott the Kyoto Protocol, upset that it does not impose requirements on large developing economies such as China and India.

The Japanese plan would also boost the economy of Okinawa which has the highest unemployment rate in the country and is heavily reliant on tourism and US military bases.

Ethanol has been a longtime political issue in the United States, with politicians repeatedly promising farm states to boost production of corn-based biofuel.

But critics say that ethanol is falsely seen as a panacea as the energy it requires to produce and the potential pollution from that process cause risks.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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