Biodiesel enzyme work gains ground

By Megan Skauge | May 11, 2009
The use of enzymes continues to advance in the biodiesel industry. A one-year grant was awarded in early April to the Chatham County Economic Development Corporation in North Carolina to conduct research on biodiesel production using enzymes. A new partnership between Massachusetts-based Verenium Corp. and Alfa Laval, a global provider of specialized products, could also benefit biodiesel by marketing an enzymatic degummer for crude feedstocks.

The $197,000 grant will be administered by CEDC with project work being done at North Carolina-based biodiesel producer Piedmont Biofuels Industrial. Piedmont Biofuels is partnering with Novozymes to conduct the work.

According to Piedmont Biofuels Research Coordinator Greg Austic, enzymatic biodiesel production is just getting its start, making this research critical. While there's been a variety of work done on the lab scale, a plant in China is essentially the only one that uses Novozymes enzymes on a consistent basis, Austic said. He says the reason for this is primarily due to the high price of the enzymes.

Novozymes is currently working on improving the quality of its enzymes so it can bring the price down to a more commercially feasible level. "Our goal is to have the process figured out so that when they bring their price down, we know how to do it right before anyone else," Austic said. The project work will include optimizing a commercially viable process in the lab, designing an upscale system, and then building a small pilot, which Austic says will produce an estimated 10 to 30 gallons an hour.

In March, enzyme-developer Verenium signed an agreement with Alfa Laval combining their Purifine PLC enzyme with Alfa Laval's engineering services and equipment. "We needed somebody who was able to integrate our enzyme into existing processes effectively, so we partnered with Alfa Laval for that," said Tim Hitchman, Purifine project manager at Verenium. "They are a non-exclusive provider of engineering solutions to the industry, and they're able to bring our process to reality," which he said is good for companies looking for that kind of "one-stop engineering shop."

The enzymatic degumming process improves operating efficiency by yielding less phosphorus, making the downstream processing more reliable, Hitchman said. The Purifine enzyme works by reacting with the phospholipids releasing both the oil in the gum and the oil-component of the phospholipids, allowing a higher percentage of oil to be converted into biodiesel.

"That yield gain is directly proportional to the amount of phospholipids you have in the oil to start with," Hitchman said. "It's a significant improvement in processing economics."

The Purifine enzyme is a phospholipase C, an advantage for biodiesel processors because it doesn't increase free fatty acids as do other enzyme degummers, thereby minimizing the refining process. Benefits of enzymatic biodiesel production include a simplified purification process with no wash water use, higher quality glycerin with minimal amounts of processing, and a potential energy savings.
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