With support from the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee, Dr. Jonathan Wenzel, assistant professor of Chemical Engineering at Kettering University, is attempting to speed up the process of making biodiesel - a renewable fuel that is made using predominantly soybean oil in the United States, but can be made from animal fats and other vegetable oils.
Wenzel’s scientific mission: transform the process of making biodiesel by increasing the speed at which soybean oil reacts with methanol to produce biodiesel.
Methanol and soybean oil react to create biodiesel. However, methanol and soybean oil do not amalgamate readily and require heat, vigorous mixing, a catalyst and lots of time to react. The methodology Wenzel is using, a process that has been under study at other universities, provides improved results.
Student David Seppo (left) and Dr. Jonathan Wenzel.
“Our approach was to take methanol, heat it and pressurize it beyond its critical point to create supercritical methanol,” Wenzel said. “Supercritical methanol can more readily dissolve the soybean oil, and combined with the higher temperatures we can react it without a catalyst.”
Supercritical methanol is created by elevating the temperature and pressure of regular methanol to the critical point that encourages it to act as a liquid and gas simultaneously which gives it unique solvent properties. Using this methodology, Wenzel asserts that biodiesel, which can be used to fuel engines that run on diesel, can be made in under 10 minutes. The methodology, when increased in scale, may serve as an economic opportunity.
“There are no supercritical methanol biodiesel plants in the United States,” Wenzel said. “With the data we produced, we had chemical engineering students conduct plant simulations to see if this was economically viable. The answer is yes, you can make a profit by producing biodiesel using this methodology.”
Kettering student Jason Davis presented parts of these findings at the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters in March 2015 at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Wenzel also presented the findings at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers conference on November 19, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Wenzel is grateful to the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee for funding the first phase of this research. The next step is to improve the process from the current structure of making the biodiesel in batches, which is labor intensive, to a more automated flow system. After the process is tested, the following step is to scale up from a small reactor to a larger one and then possibly a pilot biodiesel plant to see if the fuel can be manufactured on a commercial scale.
An influx in demand for biodiesel would create a market for soybean oil but also waste grease and other fatty products which can all be mixed with methanol to produce biodiesel. The demand for biodiesel and waste substrates required to produce it will depend on the potential applications of the renewable fuel. At present the United States produces a billion gallons of biodiesel a year.
“Several municipalities run their buses on it,” Wenzel said. “You can buy biodiesel and blended biodiesel for cars.”