|The microreactor. Click to enlarge.|
Chemical engineering researchers at Oregon State University have developed a microreactor for biodiesel production that promises to be efficient, fast and portable, and are looking for commercialization partners.
The microreactor, developed in association with the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), consists of a series of parallel channels, each smaller than a human hair, through which vegetable oil and alcohol are pumped simultaneously. At such a small scale the chemical reaction that converts the oil into biodiesel is extremely rapid.
This could be as important an invention as the mouse for your PC. If we’re successful with this, nobody will ever make biodiesel any other way.
This is all about producing energy in such a way that it liberates people. Most people think large-scale, central production of energy is cheaper, because we’ve been raised with that paradigm. But distributed energy production means you can use local resources—farmers can produce all the energy they need from what they grow on their own farms.
The challenge is that we’re trying to change a paradigm, moving from centrally-produced energy to distributed energy production, and that’s not easy. But wind and solar energy technologies faced difficulties in their early days. And we’re coming to a place in history where we cannot tolerate the growing uncertainty of petroleum-based energy supplies.—Goran Jovanovic, Assoc. Professor of Chemical Engineering, OSU
Conventional biodiesel production methods involve dissolving a catalyst, such as sodium hydroxide, in alcohol, then agitating the alcohol mixture with vegetable oil in large vats for two hours. The liquid then sits while a slow chemical reaction occurs, creating biodiesel and glycerin, a byproduct that is separated. This glycerin can be used to make soaps, but first the catalyst in it must be neutralized and removed using hydrochloric acid.
The microreactors can produce biodiesel between 10 and 100 times faster than traditional methods, according to Jovanovic, who is also developing a method for coating the microchannels with a non-toxic metallic catalyst. This would eliminate the need for the dissolved chemical catalyst, making the production process even simpler.
Although the amount of biodiesel produced from a single microreactor is a trickle, the reactors can be connected and stacked in banks to increase production. A device the size of a small suitcase could produce hundreds of thousands of gallons per year, according to Jovanovic.
Jovanovic is looking to partner with a new or existing company in order to commercialize the technology through the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute at ONAMI. ONAMI is a collaboration involving Oregon’s three public research universities—Oregon State University, Portland State University and University of Oregon—as well as the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., the state of Oregon and the regional business community.