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Putting more ‘bio’ into biodiesel fuels

By Gerald Ondrey |

Biodiesel fuels are made by the transesterification of plant-derived triglycerides (fats and oils), a process that generates impure glycerin as a byproduct while consuming fossil-fuel-derived methanol. Although there have been efforts in recent years to utilize the large volumes of glycerin byproduct (see Outlets for Glycerin, Chem. Eng. September 2007, pp. 31–37), most of these efforts focused on cleaning up the glycerin for applications in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, or converting it into other commodity chemicals, such as propylene glycol, epichlorohydrin and acrolein. Now, chemists from the Cardiff Catalyst Institute, School of Chemistry at Cardiff University (U.K.; www.cardiff.ac.uk) have discovered a way to turn crude glycerin into methanol, which can then be fed back to the transesterification process. Recycling the glycerin as methanol can increase the biodiesel fuel production by an estimated 10%, says professor Graham Hutchings, director of the institute, and lead author of the article describing the research that was published last month in Nature Communications. In contrast to other processes that hydrogenate glycerin into methanol using H2 at high pressure, the Cardiff method uses water as the source of hydrogen atoms,…
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