Like some 21st-century version of The Blob, a thick, gooey tide of glycerin is overwhelming world markets. A large part of the glycerin glut comes from biofuel refineries, which put out enormous quantities of crude glycerin as a byproduct. Though high grade glycerin is used to make products like soaps, cosmetics, foods and pharmaceuticals, vast quantities of crude glycerin are simply disposed as waste, sometimes illegally.
Somewhat ironically, glycerin may be riding to its own rescue and helping out the biofuel industry at the same time. A growing number of companies are scrambling to find uses for the abundant stuff. One is Glycos Biotechnologies, Inc. , which is commercializing glycerin-gobbling microorganisms developed by researchers at Rice University. The hungry bugs are at the heart of an energy-efficient bioconversion process that turns waste glycerin into fuels and other products.
Waste Glycerin into Glycerin Products
The big problem with crude glycerin waste is that the cost of disposal eats away at the profitability of biofuel operations. GlycosBio’s approach is to integrate bioconversion into individual refinery operations. Instead of a liability, the waste glycerin can be made into a profit center, yielding high-value chemicals (alcohols and acids) that can be used to make fabrics, insulation, and food products, as well as additional fuels. Other researchers have been developing ways to convert glycerin into ethanol, methane, hydrogen gas, and even a non-toxic antifreeze.
Integration of Bioconversion with Biofuel Refineries
GlycosBio designed its operations to follow familiar refinery processes, which makes integration relatively easy. The big difference is the company’s proprietary microbe based conversion process, which requires far less heat and power. In addition to crude glycerin, the conversion process can also work on a variety of biofuel feedstocks, perhaps including algae.
The Rice Connection
Rice University recently made news with a carbon nanotube “stew” that could bring about a significant drop in the cost of nanotube production, leading to more energy-efficient, compact and sustainable manufactured goods. The microbial bioconversion project is another example of the university’s focus on commercializing research with environmental benefits. Much more is coming down the pike as the Obama administration pours more federal funds into green research.
Image: Glycerin-enhanced soap bubbles by Jeff Kubina on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.