Oak Ridge lab develops material for biodiesel catalysis

By | April 25, 2007
Researchers at the U.S. DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee have developed a special material that could eventually streamline chemical reactions and downstream processes when used as part of a solid catalyst.

Conventional biodiesel catalysts-sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide or sodium methylate-dissolve in a solution of excess methanol and triglycerides (oils or fats) in reaction. After transesterification, residual catalysts must be removed from the resulting biodiesel and glycerin, consuming energy, water and chemicals. Unlike conventional products, ORNL's new material for biodiesel catalysis wouldn't become homogenized within the substrate during reaction. Rather, the material would act as a fixed catalyzing agent in a reactor column through which alcohol and feedstock would flow, contact and react, eliminating added steps and costs of recovery. "We need to test the long-term stability for another six months to a year," said Chengdu Liang, research scientist with ORNL, admitting initial results weren't available at press time.

Triglycerides from oils and fats can range from two to four nanometers. The special substance is "based on functionalized mesoporous carbon materials," Liang told Biodiesel Magazine. This means the pore sizes in the acid-catalyzed, carbonized material strategically range from five to 10 nanometers. The ability to produce such consistent pores "is our own invention," Liang said. "These are well-defined pore sizes." Patents on the process to make materials with such consistent pores have been issued. The carbon makes the material more resistant to corrosion, and the optimized pore sizes create the proper surface area needed for successful conversion. Liang said the average surface area per gram of ORNL's material is 400 meters. This work is led by Sheng Dai, senior research scientist and nanomaterial group leader.
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