Low cost biodiesel from agricultural waste

A powerful and inexpensive new method is capable of recycling used cooking oil and agricultural waste into biodiesel, and turning food scraps and plastic garbage into high-value productsA powerful and inexpensive new method is capable of recycling used cooking oil and agricultural waste into biodiesel, and turning food scraps and plastic garbage into high-value products

The new method takes advantage of a new type of ultra-efficient catalyst that can produce low-carbon biodiesel and other valuable complex molecules from various impure feedstocks.

The new catalyst is so strong that it can produce biodiesel from low-quality ingredients, known as feedstock, which contain up to 50% contaminants. It could double the productivity of manufacturing processes to transform garbage like food scraps, microplastics and old tires into high-value chemical precursors that are used to make everything from medicines and fertilizers to biodegradable packaging.

The catalyst design is featured in a new study from an international collaboration led by RMIT University, published in Nature Catalysis. Co-principal investigator Professor Adam Lee, RMIT, said that conventional catalyst technologies relied on high purity raw materials and required expensive engineering solutions to compensate for their poor efficiency.

To make the new ultra-efficient catalyst, the team manufactured a one-micron-sized ceramic sponge (100 times thinner than a human hair) that is highly porous and contains different specialized active components.

The molecules initially enter the sponge through large pores, where they undergo a first chemical reaction, and then move into smaller pores where they undergo a second reaction.

New catalyst

Co-lead researcher Professor Karen Wilson, also from RMIT, said the new catalyst design mimicked the way enzymes in human cells coordinate complex chemical reactions. “Our bio-inspired approach looks to nature’s catalysts, enzymes, to develop a powerful and precise way to perform multiple reactions in a set sequence. It’s like having a nanoscale production line for chemical reactions, all housed in one tiny catalyst particle and highly efficient.”

RMIT University focuses its study on nature

Sponge-shaped catalysts are cheap to make and do not use precious metals. Making low-carbon biodiesel from agricultural waste with these catalysts requires little more than a large container, some gentle heating and stirring.

It is a low-tech, low-cost approach that could promote distributed biofuel production and reduce dependence on diesel derived from fossil fuels. “This is particularly important in developing countries where diesel is the main fuel for powering domestic electricity generators,” said Wilson.

Next steps for the RMIT School of Science research team are to scale catalyst manufacturing from grams to kilograms and adopt 3-D printing technologies to accelerate time to market.

With information from dpa

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