Fuel (and Pet) Friendly
Fuel (and Pet) Friendly
Long before the price of fuel skyrocketed this fall, several MU scientists were working to raise the profile of biodiesel, a cleaner-burning soybean-based alternative to fuels refined from oil.
One of these researchers is Leon Schumacher, a professor of agricultural engineering who has pioneered the use of biodiesel fuel in ordinary cars and trucks. Another is Jay Thelen, an assistant professor of biochemistry who is working to boost oil content in domestic soybeans used to make the fuel. (Our coverage of Thelen's research can be read here.) A third is Galen Suppes, an associate professor of chemical engineering who has recently developed a new way to convert glycerin, a biodiesel by-product, into propylene glycol, a non-toxic chemical that could lower biodiesel production costs and make possible a safer alternative to antifreeze.
Suppes' work is of particular moment because it promises to change the cost equations that have thus far limited biodiesel's appeal. Because the market price of propylene glycol is far higher than that of glycerin, producers looking to profit from propylene glycol will likely use his technique to ramp up biodiesel manufacture. Suppes estimates that such a propylene glycol-driven production spike could lower biodiesel prices by 40 or more cents per gallon.
Competitive pricing is crucial if biodiesel is going to emerge as a true alternative to fossil fuels. "Right now biodiesel production is only part of the solution," Suppes says. "Current biodiesel production in the United States is about 0.03 billion gallons per year as compared to distillate fuel oil consumption of 57 billion gallons per year. I believe this technology will attract more companies and plants to produce propylene glycol, a cheaper and environmentally safer product."
Suppes' conversion process works by using lime as an agent for precipitating phosphates out of a solution of aqueous glycerin. It's a method, he says, that improves upon existing conversion techniques by accomplishing the chemical transformation at lower pressures and temperatures. This, in turn, leads to greater yields.
Propylene glycol, like its chemical cousin ethylene glycol, is a key component in antifreeze and de-icing solutions, polyester compounds, and solvents for paints and plastics. Unlike ethylene glycol, it won't harm people and animals. This is no small benefit.
Most of ethylene glycol-based antifreeze sold to consumers is colorful, sweet-tasting and attractive to children and animals. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, as many as 1,400 children ingest antifreeze each year. Thankfully, most receive an antidote before much damage is done. Pets are not so lucky. Veterinarians at Washington State University recently estimated that some 10,000 dogs and cats die of antifreeze poisoning annually.
Suppes believes animal-friendliness is just one reason why his anti-freeze will be a hit: "Consumers want antifreeze that is both renewable and made from biomass -- as well as non-toxic," Suppes says, adding that "with the new $1.00 per gallon blending credit [from the federal government] and high fuel prices, biodiesel production could be as much as one billion gallons per year by 2010. The U.S. glycerin market is currently 400 million pounds. This would add about 1 billion pounds of glycerin to the market, so new applications are much-needed."
The National Science Foundation and Missouri soybean growers have provided support for Suppes' research. He has also formed his own company, Renewable Alternatives, "to help commercialize the technology" and to qualify for additional research grants aimed at small businesses.
Published by the Office of Research.
©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.