Research Magazine 2006

Breakthrough slashes production time and cost of biodiesel

gas pump

A UT Arlington engineer has developed a microreactor that will reduce from 90 minutes to six seconds the time required to process vegetable oil or fat into biodiesel. And in the process, it cuts the price by as much as 40 cents a gallon.

Mechanical engineering Assistant Professor Brian Dennis discovered the process, which mixes the reactants on a micro scale, accelerating the complete chemical reaction that produces the conversion. Moreover, when many microreactors are used in parallel, the unit is about the size of a small suitcase and would cost a few hundred dollars, rather than the tens of millions for a standard processing plant. Each tiny channel, which forms a microreaction of vegetable oil with methanol to produce biodiesel, is plentiful, cheap and disposable.

“This is an amazing breakthrough,” said Richard Billo, the College of Engineering’s associate dean for research. “We’ve developed the cost analysis and conducted pilot experiments, and the savings in time and money are both phenomenal and realistic.”

Biodiesel is a clean-burning, efficient fuel that makes engines run better and last longer and is produced from inexpensive renewable resources readily available in the United States. It is less toxic than table salt, biodegrades more rapidly than sugar, reduces greenhouse gases and contributes 50 percent less than conventional diesel fuel to the ozone level. The fuel also reduces cancer risk from exhaust emissions by more than 90 percent, while providing a substantial new market for America’s farmers.

The product is already widely used in Germany, where it is commonly available at the gas pump, and production is increasing about 40 percent each year, according to a report by the Global Technology Forum. By comparison, the United States produces a mere 30 million gallons a year but has a total diesel consumption of 36 billion gallons annually.

With Dr. Dennis’ discovery, those figures may be changing soon.

He received initial funding through seed money but is now courting commercial support to produce the prototype for the large-scale production that could dramatically curtail America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Leveraging industry funds as a match for state and federal grants is a great bargain for a company, which would obtain an early license for the technology and gain a dominant market position in the production and sale of biodiesel fuel, Dr. Billo said. 

“Our next step in the development process is to design a microreactor whose dimensions are optimized for production of biodiesel from a cottonseed oil feedstock, and then to build the reactor as part of a company’s biodiesel production plant,” he said. “To do that, we’re looking for a reputable biodiesel producer to serve as our partner.”

— Sue Stevens