Purolite, Transbiodiesel to market nonchemical-based reactors

By Nicholas Zeman | March 23, 2010
Ion exchange resins have been utilized for years by biodiesel processors for "polishing" fuel after the transesterification process to remove various impurities and distribute absolutely the cleanest fuel possible-now they are being marketed as a complete substitute to traditional reactors.

The biodiesel industry has been looking for ways to replace traditional conversion methods, said Purolite, the resin manufacturer headquartered in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. The company has announced a deal with start-up technology firm Transbiodiesel to manufacture and market enzyme-loaded ion exchange resins meant to replace the use of sodium methylate and provide "the simultaneous esterification of free fatty acids and transesterification of fats and oils."

The system improves conversion economics in several ways-the absence of emulsifying soaps makes the fuel easy to separate from the glycerin, and low-grade oil feedstocks with FFA content as high as 100 percent can be processed, according to Transbiodiesel. Traditional caustic transesterification results in large amounts of alkaline toxic waste and complexity in downstream processing. Low-grade oils cannot be used without significant pretreatment, the oil needs to be heated, and catalysts are typically not reusable.

"At present, chemical catalysts are used in the production of biodiesel," stated the Shfar-Am, Israel-based biodiesel start-up. "These catalysts have significant environmental and operational drawbacks with substantial impact on cost-effectiveness. Use of enzyme-based catalysts eliminates these drawbacks."

At this point, Transbiodiesel has implemented its technology at Zohar Dahlia, an Israeli producer of detergents, which will make biodiesel and use the high-quality glycerin coproduct as a component in its liquid soaps.

"Our collaboration with Purolite has been going on for over a year now," said Sobhi Basheer, founder of Transbiodiesel. "After a few months of local testing at small plants, the [technology] will be ready for the conventional market."

In addition, hydroxide is highly sensitive to water saponification and the glycerol generated as byproduct is of varying quality. TransBiodiesel's enzyme-based catalyst does not lead to toxic waste, is reusable in multiple batches, allows for the use of low grade oils, requires no heat and generates high-quality glycerol-all for less capital investment and decreased production costs compared to conventional processes.

With the introduction of this patent-pending technology, significant economic and practical advantages are gained. "Our enzyme-loaded ion exchange resin replaces the use of sodium methylate and provides the simultaneous esterification of free fatty acid and trans-esterification of fats and oils," Purolite said. "This enables biodiesel producers to overcome many of the downstream issues currently encountered, [and] economics are improved in several ways. The resulting biodiesel is easy to separate from crude glycerin because of the absence of emulsifying soaps. Crude glycerin is significantly free of contaminants and can be more readily refined."

The U.S. DOE announced last fall that this project was part of a program for U.S.-Israel cooperation on clean energy technology. With financial support from DOE and the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructures, the Bilateral Research and Development Foundation Energy Executive Committee selected four cooperative clean energy projects in the United States and Israel. This initiative awarded approximately $3.3 million in U.S.-Israel funding for these four projects.

The four projects selected for funding help address critical shared bilateral energy-related goals, while focusing on commercializing DOE technologies. The BIRD Foundation will assist by attracting and incorporating private sector cost-sharing. The Purolite-Transbiodiesel project was selected for an award of up to $700,000. "This project seeks to design a biocatalyst comprised of methanol-resistant lipase immobilized on a cost-effective resin for the production of biodiesel at commercial scales," DOE said. "Lipase biocatalysts offer significant advantages over traditional catalysts used for biodiesel production including lifecycle efficiency gains and consistent product quality, but are currently high-cost and suffer from short operation lifetime as they are degraded during the biodiesel production process."
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