Researchers at the University of Connecticut have developed a new energy efficient device that converts waste vegetable oil into biofuel. Consisting primarily of a giant glass vessel fitted out with tubes and rods, the prototype operation already produces enough biodiesel to help run the schools bus fleet, and it’s about to take a giant leap up in scale thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Converting Vegetable Oil to Biodiesel
Typically, to make biofuel you need two steps. The first step results in a mixture of biofuel and glycerol, and then you need a second step to remove the glycerol. In contrast, UConn’s device does everything in one energy efficient step, using methanol, potassium hydroxide, heat, and gravity. That still leaves the question about what to do with all that glycerol byproduct. Crude glycerol is hard to dispose of, but researchers are working on cost effective ways to refine and re-use waste glycerol from biorefineries, so in addition to biofuel UConn’s process could also yield another product of value.
Local Biofuel Markets and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Currently, UConn’s device produces only about 2,000 gallons of biodiesel per year. That is about to change. With part of a $1.8 million DOE grant, plans are under way to build a large scale pilot project that can produce 200,000 gallons per year. If the pilot proves successful, the same technology can be scaled up to commercial size. While the operation applies to crops typically grown in the Midwest, the ultimate goal of the Department of Energy’s grant is to help move away from food crops, and make use of local non-food biofuel crops. That includes agricultural waste as well as waste from food production facilities. Localization also reduces greenhouse gas emissions related to transporting the feedstock to refineries, and the finished product to retailers.
Cleaner Diesel by Land and by Sea
DOE’s biodiesel initiatives are just one aspect of a series of federal programs aimed at reducing diesel emissions across the board. The EPA’s Clean Diesel Campaign also addresses the issue by promoting new fuel efficiency technologies and hybrid electric systems for diesel engines in all forms of transportation including trucks, trains, and boats.
Image: Vegetable oil by cottonseedoil on flickr.com.
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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+.