Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Tagged: Biodiesel

Conference report: 35th Symposium on Biotechnology for fuels and chemicals

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

This post comes from 3rd-year DTC PhD student, Lisa Sargeant.

Lisa Sargeant and Rhodri Jenkins

Lisa Sargeant and Rhodri Jenkins

It’s a sure-fire sign that you’ve chosen the right conference to attend when even feeling tired and jet-lagged doesn’t stop you having a conversation with a Prius-owning taxi driver about the fuel efficiencies of hybrid engines. From Monday 29 April to Thursday 2 May CSCT Whorrod Prize Fellow, Dr. Chris Chuck; fellow CSCT student, Rhodri Jenkins; I (Lisa Sargeant) and colleagues from the Department of Biology and Biochemistry were fortunate enough to travel to the USA to attend the 35th Symposium on Biotechnology for fuels and chemicals. The symposium was hosted by the Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology in Portland, Oregon, a city famous for beer, coffee and wine!

Across the four days of the conference, we heard talks ranging from conversion technologies for biofeedstocks to biorefineries and the economics & commercialisation of biofuels/bioproducts.

Chris Chuck and I both presented posters on liquid fuels from M. pulcherima and R. glutinis respectively. Rhodri presented a fantastic talk about his research on ‘The identification and engine testing of potential renewable oxygenated biofuels for the aviation and road transport sectors’. These led to discussions with researchers from the University of British Colombia, NREL, University of Campinas, Brazil and Michigan State University: contacts we hope to develop in the future.

The talks were sandwiched between the keynote speech from Dr. Lee Lynd and the banquet speaker, Prof. Douglas Eveleigh. Lee Lynd set the tone for the conference perfectly by addressing any doubts on the feasibility and desirability of large-scale cellulosic biofuel production, whilst Douglas Eveleigh wrapped-up the conference with his highly entertaining talk entitled “Cellulase – the greatest show on earth” with references to Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, Thomas Crapper and the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Making the most of being State-side, we took the opportunity to take a holiday and hired cars to tour the West coast taking in sights such as Crater Lake, San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Death Valley, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.


Research update: Biodiesel production in fixed bed catalytic reactors

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📥  Research updates

Biodiesel has the potential to be an environmentally sustainable alternative fuel source for diesel engines.  It is made by the transesterification of triglycerides, which are the main components in fats and oils.  Transesterification is a chemical reaction which, in the case of biodiesel, leads to the long fatty acid chain being removed from the glycerol backbone of a triglyceride (fat) molecule and being replaced by an alkyl group from a short chain alcohol, such as methanol, as shown in Figure 1.  This has historically been done with the aid of a dissolved or liquid catalyst, either an acid or a base.  Unfortunately, this leads to increased wastewater production, as the catalyst must be washed out of the fuel before being neutralised.  Additionally, the faster basic catalysts are extremely sensitive to both water and free fatty acids (FFA), resulting in the formation of soap from the latter.  If these catalysts can be replaced with a solid, water and FFA tolerant catalyst, the production of biodiesel can be made much cleaner and more economical.

Figure 1. Reaction scheme for biodiesel production

Figure 1. Reaction scheme for biodiesel production

My project is focused on developing a solid catalyst anchored on a support structure, which will allow the catalyst to be fixed inside a reactor while the oil and methanol are pumped through it. The main aims for the catalyst are that it:

  • Does not dissolve (leach) into the reaction mixture
  • Stays active for a prolonged period of time
  • Is tolerant of FFA and water

Previous work at the University had focused on a zinc-amino acid complex, but this was ultimately shown to leach. Thus, focus has shifted to catalysts that can be physically incorporated into a coating layer, such as a sol-gel. Currently, strontium oxide is being examined as a candidate, as it is a very effective catalyst when used as a powder.

About the author

Ben Firth is in the first year of his PhD, studying "Biodiesel production in fixed bed catalytic reactors". He is supervised by Prof Stan Kolaczkowski in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Further reading

KNOTHE, G., VAN GERPEN, J. & KRAHL, J. 2005. The biodiesel handbook, Urbana, Ill., AOCS Press.