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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

News From My Backyard: OSU Researchers Develop Chemical Biodiesel Microreactor

Researchers at my sister university up north are at it again: Chemical engineering researchers at Oregon State University have developed a tiny new microreactor for biodiesel production that promises to be efficient, fast and portable, according to articles at Green Car Congress (GCC) and the Salem StatesmanJournal. The OSU researchers are now looking for partners to commercialize the microreactor.

The microreactor, developed in association with the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), consists of a series of parallel channels, each smaller than a human hair, through which vegetable oil and alcohol are pumped simultaneously, according to GCC. At that tiny scale, the chemical reaction that converts the oil into biodiesel is extremely rapid, almost instantaneous, according to the StatesmanJournal.

According to Goran Jovanovic, the OSU Chemical Engineering professor who developed the microreactor:

"This could be as important an invention as the mouse for your PC. If we’re successful with this, nobody will ever make biodiesel any other way.

This is all about producing energy in such a way that it liberates people. Most people think large-scale, central production of energy is cheaper, because we’ve been raised with that paradigm. But distributed energy production means you can use local resources—farmers can produce all the energy they need from what they grow on their own farms.

The challenge is that we’re trying to change a paradigm, moving from centrally-produced energy to distributed energy production, and that’s not easy. But wind and solar energy technologies faced difficulties in their early days. And we’re coming to a place in history where we cannot tolerate the growing uncertainty of petroleum-based energy supplies."

According to GCC, conventional biodiesel production methods involve dissolving a catalyst, such as sodium hydroxide, in alcohol, then agitating the alcohol mixture with vegetable oil in large vats for two hours. The liquid then sits while a slow chemical reaction occurs, creating biodiesel and glycerin. The glycerin is then seperated and can be used to make soaps, but first the catalyst in it must be neutralized and removed using hydrochloric acid.

The new microreactors developed at OSU can produce biodiesel between 10 and 100 times faster than traditional methods, according to Prof. Jovanovic. Jovanovic is also reportedly developing a method for coating the microchannels with a non-toxic metallic catalyst, making the process even more environmentally friendly. This would also eliminate the need for the dissolved chemical catalyst, making the production process even simpler.

Although the amount of biodiesel produced from a single microreactor is a trickle, the reactors can be connected and stacked in banks to increase production. According to Jovanovic, an array of microreactors the size of a small suitcase could produce hundreds of thousands of gallons per year.

Jovanovic is looking to partner with a new or existing company in order to commercialize the technology through the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute at ONAMI. ONAMI is a collaboration involving Oregon’s three public research universities - OSU, Portland State University and the University of Oregon [which I attend] - as well as the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., the state of Oregon and the regional business community.

There seems to be quite a lot of exciting research going on up at OSU on biodiesel and biohydrogen production. I reported last month on a new "microbial fuel cell" also being developed at OSU that uses organic material in wastewater to generate electricity or hydrogen while also cleaning the wastewater. OSU is also at work exploring the use of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, in biohydrogen production. This project was funded by a $900,000 DOE grant awarded to OSU's Department of Bioengineering last October. What other goodies will come out of OSU's research programs I wonder?

If this new microcreactor array can be succesfully commercialized at a competitive price, it could enable dozens of small-scale on-site biorefineries to pop up at farms, restaurants and other small businesses that produce waste oil, enabling these businesses to supplement their income by producing and marketing biodiesel from what was previously considered a waste poduct. The total amount of biodiesel that could be produced from such waste oils would still only offset a very small percentage of our total petroleum use, but as much of this wase oil that can be utilized, the better.

This method of biodiesel production is clearly simpler than the traditional process, but I wonder how its efficiency compares to other methods. I would hope that it is also more efficient at converting vegetable oils into biodiesel, but I am not sure at this point.

Finally, Green Car Congress also reported this week about a Utah-based start-up company called Domestic Energy Partners that claims to have developed another simplified process for the production of biodiesel from virgin or waste oil. Their process will reportedly support systems that produce as much as 2.25 million gallons per year or as little as needed for a single home. DEP offers very little information about their process so it is unclear if they are using a similar method as the OSU microreactors (or if a patent conflict may come up). Regardless, it seems that we will be seeing simplified biodiesel production methods reaching market soon which could further accelerate the use of biodiesel, which is already growing at a rapid rate, having tripled during 2005.


Heiko said...

On my browser it looks as if you've got the same posting up twice.

Jesse Jenkins said...

Thanks Heiko. Whoops...