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Tiny Biodiesel Reactors 369

Lee_in_KC writes "A professor of chemical engineering at Oregon State University developed a small reactor to directly convert vegetable oil to biodiesel. Goran Jovanovic reports his invention is approximately the size of a credit card. It pumps vegetable oil and alcohol through parallel channels to convert the oil into biodiesel almost instantly. Current mainstream methods to produce biodiesel take more than a day and also produces other byproducts which must be neutralized before disposal or use in other manufacturing processes."
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Tiny Biodiesel Reactors

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  • better article (Score:5, Informative)

    by Quixote ( 154172 ) * on Wednesday April 19, 2006 @11:47PM (#15162370) Homepage Journal
    You can find a much better article here [].

    I'm not sure how feasible this is. Also, as per the longer article (above), it does not eliminate the need for NaOH; unless I'm reading it wrong.

  • by AWhiteFlame ( 928642 ) on Wednesday April 19, 2006 @11:50PM (#15162386) Homepage
    > Conventional production involves dissolving a catalyst, such as sodium hydroxide, in alcohol, then stirring it into vegetable oil in large vats for about two hours. The mixture then has to sit for 12 to 24 hours while a slow chemical reaction forms biodiesel along with glycerin, a byproduct.

    It mentions a byproduct in the conventional method. Am I missing something, or does it not clarify whether or not this new method produces a byproduct?
  • Re:better article (Score:5, Informative)

    by NitsujTPU ( 19263 ) on Wednesday April 19, 2006 @11:56PM (#15162417)
    This is discussed in the article.

    NaOH is the catalyst used in the reaction.

    The microreactor under development by the university and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute eliminates the mixing, the standing time and maybe even the need for a catalyst.
  • by Doytch ( 950946 ) < minus language> on Wednesday April 19, 2006 @11:58PM (#15162429)
    Glycerin is not a problem in and of itself, it's the catalyst properties that are mixed in from the NaOH that end up creating useless glycerin that must be purified to be of use. Since this may eliminate the need for the catalyst, the glycerin can be used immediately without purification.
  • by kfg ( 145172 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @12:05AM (#15162458)
    Energy independence ... Priceless!

    So it's really going to suck that we have to buy the corn from Mongolia.

  • Re:We're saved! (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, 2006 @12:17AM (#15162513)
    you can take the tinfoil hat off.

    x-ray machines generate the x-rays by using that voltage to accelerate electrons which slam into targets, causing x-rays to be emitted.

    sparks don't emit x-rays. []

  • by MonkeyBoyo ( 630427 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @12:18AM (#15162520)
    Fing ignorant science writers.
    The main article says:
    Conventional production involves dissolving a catalyst, such as sodium hydroxide, in alcohol, then stirring it into vegetable oil in large vats for about two hours. The mixture then has to sit for 12 to 24 hours while a slow chemical reaction forms biodiesel along with glycerin, a byproduct.

    The glycerin is separated and can be used to make other products, such as soaps, but it still contains the chemical catalyst, which must be neutralized and removed using hydrochloric acid, a long and costly process.
    NaOH + glycerin = soap.
  • by WillAffleck ( 42386 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @12:38AM (#15162598)
    The energy returned on energy invested for biofuel is about 1/10th what it is for petroleum

    According to scientific papers searchable in ScienceDirect (if you have university access), the Netherlands is acheiving around 40 percent energy - and since it's derived from solar radiation (sun on plants), this is a lot more efficient than our current 30 percent usage of Canadian Tar Oil Sands, which uses barrels of oil to release more oil from the sands.

    So, from that perspective, it's more efficient.

    Now, it's true that the energy density is not as high, so long-distance movement of such fuels is not as useful as local power plant usage, or local heating. That's a function of caloric mass content and BTU/m2 - but we're only beginning to develop this source, so one can easily expect higher yields as we manipulate the plant genomes and conversion processes.
  • Re:We're saved! (Score:4, Informative)

    by FooAtWFU ( 699187 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @12:38AM (#15162599) Homepage
    Your theory is cutely paranoid, but I believe your understanding of X-ray production is flawed or incomplete. X-rays will not be produced merely because something operates "at the same voltage as" medical X-ray equipment. There is nothing specially magical about having electricity at that voltage. Rather, there are two ways to generate electrons: in the first, you use a synchrotron (a circular type of particle accelerator) and in the second, more traditional manner, you simply run high-energy electrons through a vacuum tube and into a special metallic target: the high-energy electron then knocks loose an electron in the metal and an electron from a higher orbital falls down to take its place (emitting an X-ray photon as it does so - that's flourescence for you). The physics in an internal combustion engine aren't really conducive to this: the electrons are not accelerated in a vacuum, but rather they are conducted along through the gasoline/air mixture (which experiences electrical breakdown and rapidly becomes ionized in the gap between the two electrodes). Even then, consider that undirected X-ray radiation would end up diminishing in intensity with the square of distance (and you've got several feet). And finally, there is also a nontrivial amount of shielding between You and the Engine, in the forms of the engine block (remember, these supposed X-rays are INSIDE the cylinders), the car body, and whatever else is in between.

    If thousands of cancers a year are being blamed on ultraviolet, well, there's a lot more ultraviolet streaming down from the Sun then you could theoretically come up with as coming out of your car engine. Now, secondhand smoke is another matter, and I suspect a highly overrated cancer threat, but that's another story. Don't hold your breath for an "amazing blessing".

  • Re:I'm waiting. (Score:3, Informative)

    by ScaryMonkey ( 886119 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @12:42AM (#15162613)
    Because energy companies have all the infrastructure in place to continue profiting off of petroleum. Switching over to alternative fuels would require massive restructuring of their operations and investment in new infrastructure. Oil companies are not necessarily averse to alternative fuels per se, but at the moment their cost-benefit analyses will tell them that its easier and more profitable to continue focusing on petroleum. When there is little enough oil left that it becomes unprofitable to keep extracting and selling it, the move to alternative technologies will make more sense (at least, that's the business perspective).

    And, as another poster pointed out correctly, I shoould have said "the next twenty years."
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, 2006 @12:55AM (#15162664)
    NaOH + fatty acid ---> soap

    glycerin makes soap more runny. it doesn't react as an acid.
  • by Fallen Kell ( 165468 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @01:02AM (#15162699)
    Basically the concept is on paper only. Why else would he be stating things like "If it works...", or "...could reduce...", "...might not need a catalyst..." etc.? It is because they havn't gotten a working prototype yet. They basically believe that their design could work, as they have done the chemical reaction analysis as well as a design analysis on how to cause the chemical reaction to occur quickly and efficently. But again, this is all on paper still. We don't even know yet if their results from the chemical reaction simulation are correct yet!
  • Re:better article (Score:5, Informative)

    by Hal_Porter ( 817932 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @01:04AM (#15162706)
    You can run diesel engines on unrefined rapeseed oil if you tweak them a bit l []
    In the UK drivers using SVO have been prosecuted for failure to pay duty to Customs and Excise.

    Biodiesel just means that you can run an umodified engine -

    from []
    Sometimes even unrefined vegetable oil is incorrectly called "biodiesel". Unlike unrefined vegetable oil, biodiesel does not require fuel pre-heating and filtration due to issues with coagulation, and also require no or minimal modification to the fuel system.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, 2006 @01:05AM (#15162708)
    Think like a catalytic converter on your car. each cell in the honeycombe is small but in parallel(each device having multiple channels) you get a large flowrate. Each device produces only a miniscule amount but its more than the flow of a single hair sized pipe. "Arranged this way, a unit about the size of a computer printer and costing $1,000 to $5,000 could produce as much as 50,000 to 100,000 gallons of biodiesel a year." -the other article on the device.

    On a side note the device still does use NaOH but its just the catalyst and says on the pipe linings. Think a cars Catalytic converter agian.
  • by Pfhor ( 40220 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @01:46AM (#15162839) Homepage
    Combine these reactors with these 1/1718256 [] algae who eat CO2 and can be pressed for a vegetable oil, and your coil burning power plant is now more eco friendly. You can also just grow large amounts of other algae and use them to produce the veggie oil also.
  • Re:We're saved! (Score:2, Informative)

    by couch_warrior ( 718752 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @01:48AM (#15162845)
    For those of you who were born stupid, the emission of radiation by spark gaps was first discovered by Heinrich Rudolf Hertz - the same one that the Hertz in megahertz is named after - back in 1887. It was Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen who discovered that this phenomenon could be used to produce X-rays in 1895 Here is a paper on building an Xray tube USING SPARK PLUGS. let?prog=normal&id=RSINAK000072000010003983000001& idtype=cvips&gifs=yes [] Here are several scientific papers on the production of X-rays by spark gaps in various gaseous media. r2/paper2.pdf [] [] /_FischerXRaySparkGap/index.htm [] Morons.
  • by fintux ( 798480 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @01:53AM (#15162866)
    It's not about whether it creates CO2 when burned or not. It's about where the coal for it comes. In vegetable oil, it comes from the plants, which get it from air, from - yes, CO2.

    And that CO2 would be released after the plant dies anyway, because of all microbic activity etc. So why not to use the released energy tp move a car instead of as food for microbes. So it's kind of recycling the CO2.

    But when you burn fossile oils, then you are creating CO2 from coal that would have staid under ground for a looooong time, so in that case you woud release CO2 into air without getting any CO2 away.

    So there IS a difference. A very significant one.
  • Re:better article (Score:5, Informative)

    by Gordonjcp ( 186804 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @02:25AM (#15162999) Homepage
    I've run a few cars on straight waste veg oil. You *do* have to pay fuel duty on it, but at a much lower rate than mineral diesel. You can run straight veg oil in pretty much all the PSA diesels (Peugeot / Renault / Citroën / some Volvo) if they have a Bosch fuel pump - the Lucas ones are more efficient but have tighter running clearances and the increased viscosity will damage them. I've had best results with the 2.5 turbodiesel as fitted to the Citroën CX and various trucks. The XUD-series engines work fairly well too.

    In general running pure veg oil is a pain in the arse because it's very hard to get the engine started. If you weren't going to switch off for more than a few minutes it would be just fine (which might be practical for generators).
  • Re:We're saved! (Score:3, Informative)

    by locofungus ( 179280 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @02:58AM (#15163088)
    Nope. In order to generate X-rays you need to accelerate the electrons to >30kev before they hit the target. This requires a vacuum between the cathode and the anode target.

    In a gas the electrons will never reach more than a few tens ev. As they accelerate they strike another atom and their energy goes in ionizing the gas.

  • by ionpro ( 34327 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @03:14AM (#15163138) Homepage
    Except the highest corporate profits of any company EVER was Exxon's profits last year, totaling $44 BILLION (on $332 billion in revenues)[1]. That's not revenues, that's PROFITS. I think they're doing well enough in the oil business, thankyaverymuch.

    [1] []
  • by Flying pig ( 925874 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @03:30AM (#15163184)
    This is a joke, and somebody who doesn't know organic chemistry from his ass thought it was a troll. Dear idiot, the sodium hydroxide combines with the added alcohol to form sodium methoxide, which then reacts with the oil. The NaOH is not in fact a catalyst, it is an intermediate reaction component. And yes, it is corrosive.

    Don't they teach kids ANY organic chemistry nowadays? How are we to produce the next generation of recreational drug designers and home-made explosives producers that made the West what it is today?

  • Re:better article (Score:2, Informative)

    by bloobloo ( 957543 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @04:01AM (#15163264) Homepage
    Not quite. Catalysts can't affect the position of equilibrium as the forward and reverse reactions are catalysed equally. If you have multiple reactions occuring in parallel and one of them is the reaction you want to occur, then catalysis increases the yield of the desired product at the expense of byproducts.
  • Dear consparicy guy (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @04:16AM (#15163303)
    "There is a 100 mpg carburetor patent that an oil company is sitting on."

    Prove it.

    This story has been around forever and seems to have no merit to it. Snopes addesses it as false: p []

    So unless you can show me some proof to the contrary, I'm going to to say it's just so much BS.

    There's been con artists that have claimed to have miracle devices. However there's always some common threads:

    1) They do something that seems to be impossible.
    2) They'll never let anyone mess with and test their devices.
    3) There's always some string of "unfortunate problems" that keep it form coming to market.

    Also please remember: Patents last only 20 years, and by definition they are public. So if an oil company bought a patent for a super efficent car, they could sit on it for only 20 years, and everyone who wanted to know how it worked would, since the patent is public record. It's not like they could cover it up.

    So, please, provide a link to the 100mpg patent if you think it's real.
  • Re:I'm waiting. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @04:25AM (#15163322)
    Umm ok except that works for 20 years tops. That's how long a patent lasts, they aren't perpetual. Also you can't hide a patent, they are public record.

    Basically, in the US you have two ways of protecting an innovative process: a patent or a trade secret.

    A trade secret is just what it sounds like, a secret. You develop something and don't tell anyone. So let's say I invent a way to turn lead in to gold at my company. I decide to keep it a secret. I release the plans to nobody and make all my employees sign an NDA. Thus I'm the only one who can do it. Fair enough, but there's no special legal protection. If a rival happens to discover how I do it, they are free to use it, it's not a secret anymore.

    So the other route I can take is a patent. Here I publish my method for lead to gold for the world to see in the form of a patent. However, in doing so, I recieve a legal gaurentee that it's mine. You can read all about it, but you can't use it without my permission. I'm free to set the terms on that. But I only have 20 years to do that in. After 20 years, it's assumed I should have made my money, and it's now free for the world.

    Now, while I can decide to patent a trade secret, I can't take something I've patented and make it a secret. Trade secrets are things you have to enforce actively. They don't have any special legal standing, they are just a defacto sort of thing. The government recognises your right to keep a secret if you want, but offers it no special protection. One it's no longer a secret, too bad for you, should have gotten a patent before hand.

    So if the oil companies bought a patent to sit on it, they are just buying themselves 20 years. Ok maybe that's the point, but you can't keep claiming that they are "sitting on a patent" that they allegedly got 50 years ago, because it's been public domain for 30 years already.
  • Re:better article (Score:5, Informative)

    by feyhunde ( 700477 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @05:04AM (#15163393)
    Goran runs his truck on SVO, but biodiesel is more viable as it can use any long chain hydrocarbon to make a fuel. I'm an ex-student of his, and work on several projects with him and the group. Actually a good deal of ground work was done by some students of him last year for their senior engineering project.

    One of the most common things for biodiesel is A. It produces a large amount of Glycerol that might be economically used (I help test that concept last year) and B. it can be mixed with existing diesel to increase overall engine efficiency and reduce smog.

    Since biodiesel is taking pretty much nothing but long chain HCs and using NaOH as a catalyst to reduce em down, and then cleaned (NaOH mostly goes to glycerol if i remember) once the sodium is cleaned out there is nothing but fuel. As a result it's sulfur content is nada. Adding it to regular diesel lets it run hotter and cleaner. The only issue is that biodiesel lacks normal fuel additives used to promote all climate use. Many places have a 20 or 50% mix if they offer it commercially. If you are interested in your self switching I'd suggest looking around for a locale fuel coop. I know the one in C-town has 1.50 a gallon for SVO, and 2.00 or so for Biodiesel.

    The only changes you really need to make for SVO is a few hoses changed around. Not recommended always for colder climates with out adding an engine block heater.
  • by kmavro ( 968490 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @05:38AM (#15163456)
    There are still some unresolved technical concerns with the use of biodiesel at concentration greater than 5%. Some of the concerns are:
            Requires special care at low temperatures to avoid excessive rise in viscosity and loss of fluidity
            Storage is a problem due to higher then normal risk of microbial contamination due to water absorption as well as a higher rate of oxidation stability which creates insoluble gums and sediment deposits
            Being hygroscopic, the fuel tends to have increased water content, which increases the risk of corrosion
            Biodiesel tends to cause higher engine deposit formations
            The methyl esters in biodiesel fuel may attack the seals and composite materials used in vehicle fuel systems
            It may attack certain metals such as zinc, copper based alloys, cast iron, tin, lead, cobalt, and manganese
            It is an effective solvent, and can act as a paint stripper, whilst it will tend to loosen deposits in the bottom of fuel tanks of vehicles previously run on mineral diesel vehicles/BiodieselTechnology.asp []
  • by jnelson4765 ( 845296 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @06:20AM (#15163545) Journal
    A lot of these problems can be solved using Teflon, Inconel, ceramic, and stainless for the fuel systems. You can also coat the interior passages of new engines to prevent a lot of that corrosion.

    High water content in biodiesel will, unfortunately, be a problem for the forseeable future. What it means, though, is that there will probably be the need for some kind of additive - viscosity index improvers, antifungals, and whatnot that are already added to regular diesel.
  • by 0xC2 ( 896799 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @06:30AM (#15163559) Homepage
    You are half correct. The intended process is transesterification, which is direct (stepwise) substitution of the glycerol in fat with three molecules of alcohol (say for example ethanol). So one large triglyceride (a molecule of fat) is broken down to 3 fatty acid ethyl esters and one molecule of glycerin. This process is catalytic, and can be catalyzed by acid or base.

    (BTW, oil = liquid fat).

    The problematic side reaction is hydrolysis of the oil to fatty acids (i.e. saponification to soap), due to the presence of water in the crude oil. This side reaction is compounded by the difficulty of mixing the fat and alcohol during reaction (fat and alcohol not completely miscible), which reduces the efficiency of the catalytic transesterification, thereby increasing the extent of the unwanted side reaction (saponification to soap). Also crude oils contain fatty acids which could quickly neutralize a catalytic amount of sodium hydroxide (stopping the process).

    Therefore the conventional (batchwise) process is to treat the fat with excess sodium hydroxide in a non-catalytic initial step; whatever water is present is consumed in a conventional, non-catalytic saponification to sodium salts of fatty acids, glycerin, and excess sodium hydroxide. Any fatty acid is converted to its sodium salt. All of which are easily removed from the fat (oil). The resulting purified fat is suitable for the catalytic transesterification process to biodiesel.

    I'm a chemist, but haven't worked with these microreactors, so the following is guessing:

    A microprocessor can increase the efficiency of the desired transesterification by allowing intimate mixing of the alcohol and the fat, which is half the battle in this case. Also, a continuous processor can have advantages over batch processing in that the reaction conditions (pH, temp, etc.) can be dynamically controlled.

    My guess is that the fat (oil) would still require pre-treatment to remove water, fatty acids, and fine particles before entering the fuel cell.
  • by Maximum Prophet ( 716608 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @09:19AM (#15164121)
    There is a magic solution, it's called hemp. Hemp transforms solar energy into biomass more efficiently than just about any other plant, and can be processed into fibre, oil and feedstock. Hemp also grows about anywhere. If the US and Canada planted just the excess farmland and some of the land that can't currently be farmed with hemp, we could solve our energy problems.
  • by Ex-MislTech ( 557759 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @10:08AM (#15164509) []

    Nothing compares to the output from Algae as far as bio oil goes .

                    * Soybean: 40 to 50 US gal/acre (40 to 50 m/km)
                    * Rapeseed: 110 to 145 US gal/acre (100 to 140 m/km)
                    * Mustard: 140 US gal/acre (130 m/km)
                    * Jatropha: 175 US gal/acre (160 m/km)
                    * Palm oil: 650 US gal/acre (610 m/km) [2]
                    * Algae: 10,000 to 20,000 US gal/acre (10,000 to 20,000 m/km)

  • by dlapine ( 131282 ) <lapine.illinois@edu> on Thursday April 20, 2006 @11:17AM (#15165064) Homepage
    Biodiesel B20 (20% biodiesel/80% petroldiesel) already has 45 million road miles of testing with no side effects.

    ASTM already has standards for a 20% blend.

    Go to's Fact sheets [] and have look for yourself. If you were to use 100% biodiesel, some of your quoted concerns would need to be addressed. Not that big a deal- just need to replace pure rubber for fuel lines, check and replace fuel filters for diesels that have already been in service, and preheat/keep warm any diesel driven vehicles if it gets really cold outside.

    What's really spiffy is the possibility that small kits of these could be used right on the farm to make more self-sufficient farming possible for remote areas of the world. A tractor might run for 20 years, but bringing in diesel is a yearly event.

  • by Svartalf ( 2997 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @11:22AM (#15165106) Homepage
    Explosives are merely combustables with their own in-built oxidizer so that they effectively have an unlimited
    source of oxidization (which could be any reactants, really, so long as it's a combustion type reaction...).

    1) You can make your own liquid oxygen- all you need is to machine the right gear and it doesn't red-flag as the resources to make the liquification machine are needed to make tools, cars, etc.

    2) Anything combustable that is LOX saturated will explode if ignited- it effectively has an unlimited amount of oxidizer at it's disposal to combust with.

    3) A carcoal briquette, such as out of a Kingsford bag will explode with about the force of a stick of dynamite if thoroughly soaked with LOX and ignited or hit with a primary detonator like a blasting squib. This is the basis of a lot of commercial mining explosives these days. Don't want to do a blast? Let the LOX out and it's no longer explosive.

    This is just ONE piece of chemistry that, you too, can play with without much notice. There's raftloads others.
    And before you get on to me about "revealing" this to the terrorists- it's common knowlege and they also know how
    to make comparable substances that don't need cryo containment to go with it. Contrary to popular belief to the
    otherwise, the leaders , while quite nuts themselves, aren't stupid. Many of them are very well
    educated- by the US educational system, even.

    (By the way, black powder rocketry's fun, but Zinc/Sulphur mix rocketry's even moreso and easier to get
    the stuff... :->
  • Re:I'm waiting. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Xeth ( 614132 ) on Thursday April 20, 2006 @11:23AM (#15165121) Journal
    A trade secret is just what it sounds like, a secret. You develop something and don't tell anyone. So let's say I invent a way to turn lead in to gold at my company. I decide to keep it a secret. I release the plans to nobody and make all my employees sign an NDA. Thus I'm the only one who can do it. Fair enough, but there's no special legal protection. If a rival happens to discover how I do it, they are free to use it, it's not a secret anymore.
    That's ever so wrong []

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced -- even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it. -- John Keats