Making Biodiesel Production Cheaper for Manufacturers

New method creates nontoxic antifreeze from biodiesel byproduct. Compiled by staff

Published on: Aug 17, 2005

In recent months, President Bush has pushed an energy plan that calls for an increase in the production of alternative fuels like biodiesel. In 1999, biodiesel producers sold only 500,000 gallons of fuel, but last year, 30 million gallons were sold. Still, that represents only a fraction of fuel used in the United States. Now, a researcher at the University of Missouri-Columbia is working to make biodiesel manufacturing more profitable for producers and more attractive to consumers.

Galen Suppes, an MU chemical engineering professor and chief science officer of the MU-based Renewable Alternatives, has developed a process for converting glycerin, a byproduct of the biodiesel production process, into propylene glycol. Propylene glycol can be used as nontoxic antifreeze for automobiles. Currently, ethylene glycol is prominently used in vehicular antifreeze and is both toxic and made from petroleum.

Suppes says the new propylene glycol product will meet every performance standard, is made from domestic soybeans and is nontoxic. While other research groups are involved in this topic, Suppes says his process works at a lower pressure and temperature than the other groups, and this process creates a higher yield.

"At best, 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. We believe this technology will encourage and attract more companies and plants to produce propylene glycol, a cheaper and environmentally safer product."

Suppes says this technology can reduce the cost of biodiesel production by as much as $0.40 per gallon of biodiesel. The market for propylene glycol already is established, with a billion pounds produced a year.

"The price of propylene glycol is quite high while glycerin’s price is low, so based on the low cost of feed stock and high value of propylene glycol, the process appears to be most profitable," Suppes says. "The consumers want antifreeze that is both renewable and made from biomass rather than petroleum from which propylene glycol currently is produced, as well as nontoxic."

Right now, Renewable Alternatives is licensing this technology to three biodiesel plants, with a fourth one in the works. The National Science Foundation and Missouri Soybean Farmers are helping fund the research.