American Ingenuity Leads to Biodiesel Breakthrough

A small group of unassuming mid-westerners has discovered what could be a complete game-changer for the global biodiesel industry. Their new system makes biodiesel in mere seconds, creates a product that costs half the price, produces no waste, and can use any animal fat or vegetable oil as a feedstock.

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Even though I’m sometimes down on my country because of the pathetic state of our government, the thing that always makes my patriotism swell is the truly amazing and unexpected ingenuity that seems to spring forth from the American people.

And in this tale, American ingenuity doesn’t get much more classic. A student and his professor at a small college smack dab in the middle of the heartland that virtually nobody’s ever heard of, have figured out a way to make biodiesel quickly, cheaply, and efficiently from a very small package.

We’re not just talking an incremental improvement, we’re talking half the price and a tiny fraction of the time — a revolutionary change for the biodiesel industry. Think on the order of saving $2 for every gallon and going from raw materials to biodiesel in a few seconds versus many hours.

Not only that, the process can convert any animal fat or vegetable oil, mixed in any ratio, into biodiesel using the same compact reactor in a continuous stream. Compare this to the current method which converts the oil or fat to biodiesel over many hours in huge vat batches and creates a lot of potentially hazardous waste products.

The Mcgyan® process (so named for the inventors McNeff, Gyberg and Yan) started as a required undergraduate chemistry project for student Brian Krohn at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN. Krohn and his major professor, Arlin Gyberg, were looking at ways to catalyze the raw materials into biodiesel using a process called esterification.

The basic idea was to run the raw fats and oils over a sulfated zirconia catalyst to change them into biodiesel. This idea isn’t new, but the duo thought they could improve on it. In the end, the pair enlisted the help of another scientist Ben Yan and an Augsburg alum Clayton McNeff.

McNeff already owned a company that made zirconia separating columns which are typically used for something completely different. With a little modification, these columns were turned into sulfated zirconia biodiesel reactors.

Basically, the process works like this:

  • Raw fats and oils of any type are combined with an alcohol
  • This mixture is fed through a sulfated zirconia column heated to 300 degrees Celsius
  • Their Easy Fatty Acid Removal (EFAR) system recycles any unreacted raw material back through the reactor
  • Excess alcohol is recycled back through the reactor
  • Pure biodiesel comes out the end

The advantages of the system are:

  • No waste produced; No washing or neutralizing of the biodiesel is necessary
  • 100% conversion of raw materials to biodiesel
  • Any raw fat or oil can be used to make biodiesel
  • Very efficient due to heat recapture from the column
  • Sulfated zirconia catalyst never needs replacing
  • Very small footprint of the reactor system, uses an extremely small amount of area for the amount of biodiesel produced
  • Essentially no emissions and no waste stream from the process; Easy permitting from the government

The group has formed a company called Ever Cat Fuels and is in the process of building a 3 million gallon per year (MMgy) commercial biodiesel facility with the intention of scaling it up to 30 MMgy in the next 3-5 years. As soon as the Ever Cat plant is producing biodiesel successfully, the group plans on licensing the technology to other interested parties.

Bada-bing, bada-bang. Anybody have start-up capital to help me license their tech (I’m only part-way kidding)?

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Source: Biodiesel Magazine

Image Credit: Ever Cat Fuels

 

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.