Tiny Microreactor Rethinks Biodiesel Production for Farms and Nation

Chemical engineering researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) have reportedly developed a tiny chemical reactor for manufacturing biodiesel that could enable farmers to produce a cleaner-burning diesel substitute on their farms using seed crops they grow on their own land in less time than current processes.

“If we’re successful with this, nobody will ever make biodiesel any other way,” said Goran Jovanovic, the OSU professor who developed the biodiesel microreactor. The microreactor developed at OSU eliminates the mixing, the standing time for separation and potentially the need for a dissolved catalyst. The new unit, which is said to be efficient, fast and portable, dispenses with what is often a tedious and costly process to make biodiesel. But more importantly, Jovanovic says, the microreactor, which is about half the size of a thick credit card, could help farmers reduce their dependence on mass-produced petroleum as well as reduce the need to distribute fuel via truck, tanker or pipeline. The microreactor, being 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 almost instant, claims the release. Although the amount of biodiesel produced from a single microreactor is a trickle, the reactors can be connected and stacked in banks to dramatically increase production. “By stacking many of these microreactors in parallel, a device the size of a small suitcase could produce enough biodiesel to power several farms, or produce hundreds of thousands of gallons per year,” Jovanovic said. Using microreactors, biodiesel could be produced between 10 and 100 times faster than traditional methods, said Jovanovic, who is also developing a method for coating the microchannels with a non-toxic metallic catalyst. This would eliminate the need for the chemical catalyst, making the production process even simpler, a key to widespread use. The federal government has granted $8 million over four years to OSU as one of the country’s five Sun Grant centers of excellence — regional hubs charged with research and development of new technologies for using agricultural wastes, residues and new crops for the production of bio-energy.
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