Biofuels Brown University researchers have developed a low cost biodiesel production process

Published on October 9th, 2010 | by Tina Casey


New Biofuel Production Method Uses One Vessel to Rule Them All

October 9th, 2010 by  

Brown University researchers have developed a low cost biodiesel production processResearchers from Brown University have come up with a simplified process for converting used French fry oil and other used vegetable oils into biofuel. The process take place in a single vessel, which makes it far less expensive. Though the research has a way to go before it’s commercially viable, it does offer the potential for a faster, cheaper biofuel production process that could help ease our way out of peak oil. And there are some other goodies, too.

A Better Way to Make Biodiesel from Waste Vegetable Oil

In conventional biodiesel production, two separate reactions are needed. That’s because the two chemicals used to convert two components of vegetable oil (free fatty acids and triacylglycerols) are not compatible with each other. The Brown researchers focused on finding chemicals that are compatible and cheap. They settled on two metals commonly used in organic chemistry, bismuth triflate and scandium triflate.

More Goodies from Single Vessel Biodiesel Production

Using a microwave reactor, the researchers converted waste vegetable oil into biodiesel in about 20 minutes. That’s far less than the two hours it would take in a conventional heater, without catalysts. The short reaction time means that the process also uses less energy. Also helping to lower costs, the two metal catalysts can be recycled up to five times while maintaining a conversion efficiency of 97 per cent.

The Future of Biofuel

Waste vegetable oil is just one of a growing number of feedstocks for biofuels that do not interfere with food crops. Waste oil is a particularly attractive source because it also solves a waste disposal problem. With an established market for waste vegetable oil, commercial food facilities will have a good incentive to keep oils out of the sewers, which will help ease sewer system and wastewater treatment costs. For that matter, researchers are also developing methods to refine biofuels from “trap grease,” which is the gunky stuff that gets skimmed off at sewage treatment plants.

Image: Vessel by cliff1066TM on

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • JWnTX

    Peak oil is fabrication.  Just FYI.

  • tom huggan

    The highways and cars were sacrificed for agriculture. This was a pizza hut, now it’s all covered with daisies. And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention.

    I see the young men, driving alone, reckless, fast, passing on the right, in their 4 door raised pickup trucks. Their brothers died fighting for cheap oil.

  • Daniel Essman

    Your lede “One Vessel to Rule Them All” gave me a laugh. Also, Tina and all you guys at Clean Tech, thanks for your posts. Is there a method for determining the time frame between the announcement of some technological development and the successful adoption of that process? Can the elements be quantified? Elements would include: need for product, cost of technique, location of technique’s developer, competing techniques. My instinct is that there are limits that can be quantified. Anyone out there have an answer…or an equation? Thanks again.

    • Tina Casey

      Daniel: So many variables! Some of this stuff never makes it out of the door, it takes just a few years (maybe less), sometimes many more. I’d be interested from anyone who’s got a handle on it.

      • Daniel Essman

        I send you a question. Then, I go to Technology Review and there’s an article about a start up called Recorded Future in which both Google and the CIA are investing. Apparently, unsurprisingly, my question is really on everyone’s mind, and some folks much brighter than I (or more given to Aspergers) are working on the problem. Anyhow, thanks again, Tina, yours and your fellows’s writings here are appreciated.

        • Tina Casey

          Daniel: Thanks for the tip on Recorded Future. There must be something in the air…

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