Process improvements

Researchers in The University of Texas at Arlington College of Engineering have developed a microreactor that will reduce the time needed to process biodiesel fuel. The process will also reduce the cost of production by as much at 30-to-40 cents per gallon.

“This is an amazing breakthrough,” said Associate Dean of Engineering – Research Dr. Richard Billo. “The microreactor can take what is now a 90-minute process to convert vegetable oil to biodiesel fuel and reduce it to less than four minutes, even down to as little as six seconds, depending on some beginning variables. We’ve developed the cost analysis and conducted pilot experiments, and the savings in time and money are both phenomenal and realistic.”

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Assistant Professor Brian Dennis developed the microreactor, which creates a continuous production of biodiesel. Because the mixing of the reactants takes place on a microscale, the complete chemical reaction is much faster than in a traditional batch reactor. When many microreactors are used in parallel, one large operation can produce the same amount of biodiesel per year as a traditional batch production plant. But whereas traditional plants costs tens of millions of dollars, the microreactor will be the size of a small suitcase and cost on the order of hundreds of dollars.

Dr. Dennis has received some funding through grants designated for nanotechnology research and is seeking commercial support to expand current development of the microreaction process. “The production rate is low now because we don’t have enough reactors,” he said, “but we’re hoping to use more in parallel this summer. We won’t be able to produce the prototype for large scale production until we get some funding.”

“We are actively seeking companies that build biodiesel refineries to be our partners in this nanotechnology development effort,” said Dr. Billo. “We believe that leveraging industry funds as a match for state and federal grants is a great bargain for a company to obtain an early license for the technology.

“Through the savings one can achieve in biodiesel production costs, the microreactor will allow a company to gain a dominant market position in the production and sale of biodiesel fuel. Our next step in the development process is to design a microreactor whose dimensions are optimized for production of biodiesel from a cottonseed oil feedstock, and then to build the reactor as part of a company’s biodiesel production plant. To do that, we are looking for a reputable biodiesel producer to serve as our partner in this endeavour.”