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New Process for Direct Conversion of Glycerol to Methanol

The new process catalytically converts glycerol to methanol using hydrogen under mild conditions. Click to enlarge.

Researchers at Oxford University (UK) have developed a new method to produce methanol (CH3OH) directly from glycerol (C3H5(OH)3), a byproduct of the transesterification process that produces biodiesel.

The process, developed by Professor Edman Tsang and his group at the Department of Inorganic Chemistry, uses direct catalytic hydrogenolysis of glycerol under mild conditions: 100°C and hydrogen at 20 bar pressure. Earlier this year, Tsang’s research in new catalytic materials identified a supported precious metal which efficiently converts glycerol to methanol.

Currently, around 90% of methanol is produced from fossil fuel via a synthesis gas reaction. Glycerol is the major byproduct in biodiesel and oleochemical production. For every 9 kg of vegetable oil processed, 1 kg of glycerol is produced. Although glycerol is used in foods and personal care products, there is no large-scale industrial demand.

Conversion processes for glycerol have focused on reforming to synthesis gas, oxidation, dehydration, hydrogenolysis and polymerization. Until now there has been no viable commercial process for glycerol’s direct conversion to methanol.

Although catalytic hydrogenolysis of glycerol has been studied by others, the main reported products from the glycerol and hydrogen reaction are propanediols and ethylene glycols, which require a degree of carbon-oxygen bonds cleavage accompanied by the addition of hydrogen under relatively harsh conditions.

The Tsang process breaks the carbon-carbon bonds of glycerol without cleaving carbon-oxygen bonds, thereby avoiding the production of gases such as methane and CO2. The carbon-neutral process works very selectively, producing methanol almost exclusively.

Essentially, this is a way of getting methanol ‘for free’ from biomass. Around 350,000 tonnes of glycerol are incinerated in the US each year, and converting this to methanol gives you a portable store of energy, and potentially an economically viable new biofuel business. When we say the process in clean, we mean that the catalyst is very selective. The exclusive product is methanol, so little additional processing is required.

—Edman Tsang

Isis Innovation, the technology transfer company for Oxford University, has patented the technology and is seeking companies interested in commercializing it.



Kit P

It will be interesting to see if this lowers the cost of producing biodiesel.

Henry Gibson

It is interesting that glycerol is still a food. It is not known what the maximum daily intake of glycerol can be. It might even be possible to burn glycerol unmodified in large diesel engines. It is definately an oxygenate. ..HG..

Max Reid

Methanol is the liquid form of natgas. It can be mixed with gasolene and Chinese are going with it in a big way just like Brazilians went with Ethanol.


This process might further the adoption of algal oil for biodiesel. An added product stream of methanol could bring the ROI into better alignment.

J. Thesz

Presently hydrogen is fossil derived. So methanol from glycerol -- just like "ordinary" methanol -- will still be fossil derived. And biodiesel still will not be 100% green. Isn't it better not to produce glycerol at all from biomass triglycerides? If you also reckon so, see our TBK-Biodiesel process: transesterifying triglycerides with ethyl acetate we get a mixture of fatty acid ethyl esters and partially modified triglycerides (containing both original C16 - C22 and introduced C2 acyl groups). Viscosity 5 - 6 cSt, 15 - 20% more biofuel from a unit of oil than in the case of biodiesel, lowered iodine number, no wastes, no glycerol, no sewage. And by the way: a really 100% renewable.

Muhammad Hasnain Haider

perfectly comply with sulleny about the hydrogen generation. but we need some other source of fuel for better tommorrow from a cheaply available source and glycerol is the cheap material.

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