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Durham University

Research & business

Easier way to create biodiesel developed

(4 November 2020)

Our researchers have developed a new way to turn the rubbish we throw away into chemicals that can help make fuel, medicines, fertilisers and biodegradable packaging.

 The low-cost, powerful method can turn old cooking oil and agricultural waste into biodiesel, and turn food scraps and plastic rubbish in to high-value chemical precursors, which are used make every day products.

This new process could be particularly important in developing countries where diesel is the primary fuel for powering electricity generators.

By empowering farmers to produce biodiesel directly from their agricultural waste, like rice bran and cashew nut shells, this would help address the critical issues of energy poverty and carbon emissions.

The process uses a new type of ultra-efficient catalyst that can make biodiesel from low-grade ingredients, a mix of waste known as feedstocks, that have up to 50 per cent contaminants compared to the current energy-intensive method that can only use feedstocks with one to two per cent contaminants.

It’s so efficient that it could double manufacturing productivity, as feedstocks with lower contaminants need expensive engineering solutions in big processing plants to produce the chemicals.

Making low-carbon biodiesel from agricultural and household waste with the new catalysts requires little more than a large container and some gentle heating and stirring, so this low technology, low-cost approach could advance biofuel production and reduce reliance on fossil fuel-derived diesel.

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

Molecules enter the sponge through large pores, where they undergo a first chemical reaction, and then pass into smaller pores where they undergo a second reaction.

Low-cost alternative

The multi-functional catalyst is the first that can perform several chemical reactions in sequence within a single catalyst particle.

Because it uses non-precious metals the catalyst is also cheaper to make.

The next steps for the science research team are scaling up the catalyst fabrication from grams to kilograms and adopting 3D printing technologies to get the product to market quicker.

Find out more

  • Read the full research paper published in Nature Catalysis.
  • Dr Simon Beaumont is Assistant Professor in our Department of Chemistry.
  • Find out more about undergraduate and postgraduate study in Chemistry at Durham.
  • The study was led by RMIT University School of Science with University College London, University of Manchester, University of Western Australia, University of Plymouth, Aston University, and University of Leeds.

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