Researchers focus on renewable diesel process improvements

Ames Lab researchers have filed a patent application on new technology that can improve the renewable diesel process and resulting fuel
By Ron Kotrba | May 28, 2014

Scientists at Ames Laboratory announced this month that they have developed a nanoparticle that performs two processing functions simultaneously for production of renewable diesel.

“Conventionally, when you are producing biodiesel from a feedstock that is rich in free fatty acids like microalgae oil, you must first separate the fatty acids that can ruin the effectiveness of the catalyst, and then you can perform the catalytic reactions that produce the fuel,” said Ames Lab scientist Igor Slowing. “By designing multifunctional nanoparticles and focusing on green diesel rather than biodiesel, we can combine multiple processes into one that is faster and cleaner.” Unlike biodiesel, renewable diesel is produced by hydrogenation of fats and oils, and its chemical composition is much like fossil diesel.

An Ames Lab research group, which included Slowing, Kapil Kandel, Conerd Frederickson, Erica A. Smith, and Young-Jin Lee, saw initial success using what they call “bifunctionalized mesostructured nanoparticles.” These ordered porous particles contain amine groups that capture free fatty acids and nickel nanoparticles that catalyze the conversion of the acids into renewable diesel. Nickel has been researched widely in the scientific community because it is approximately 2,000 times less expensive as an alternative to noble metals traditionally used in fatty acid hydrogenation, like platinum or palladium.

Ames Lab says creating a bifunctional nanoparticle not only improves the renewable diesel process, but also the resulting fuel. Using nickel for the fuel conversion alone, the process resulted in too strong of a reaction, with hydrocarbon chains that had broken down. The cracking process created a product that held less potential as a fuel.

“A very interesting thing happened when we added the component responsible for the sequestration of the fatty acids,” said Slowing. “We no longer saw the cracking of molecules. So the result is a better catalyst that produces a hydrocarbon that looks much more like diesel.”

“It also leaves the other components of the oil behind, valuable molecules that have potential uses for the pharmaceutical and food industries,” said Slowing.

Slowing, along with Kapil Kandel, James W. Anderegg, Nicholas C. Nelson, and Umesh Chaudhary, took the process even further by using iron as the catalyst, instead of nickel. Iron is 100 times cheaper, and using it improved the end product even further, giving a faster conversion and also reducing the loss of carbon dioxide in the process.

“As part of the mission of the DOE, we are focused on researching the fundamental science necessary to create the process; but the resulting technology should in principle be scalable for industry,” he said.

The process is discussed in a paper, “Bifunctional Adsorbent-Catalytic Nanoparticles for the Refining of Renewable Feedstocks” published in 2013 in ACS Catalysis, and also in “Supported Iron Nanoparticles for the Hydrodeoxygenationof Microalgal Oil to Green Diesel” published in May 2014 in the Journal of Catalysis.

A patent application has been filed for the technology. It is available for licensing from the Iowa State University Research Foundation.