INL recognized for waste-to-biodiesel process

By Erin Voegele | May 31, 2010
Posted July 21, 2010, at 12:54 p.m. CST

An advanced biodiesel project developed by researchers at Idaho National Laboratory has been selected by R&D Magazine to receive a 2010 R&D 100 award. The annual competition, which recognizes outstanding technology developments with promising commercial potential, has been held by R&D Magazine since 1962.

INL was recognized for its Supercritical Solid Catalyst process, which converts waste feedstocks with up to 100 percent free fatty acid content into ASTM-quality biodiesel. According to Chemical Engineer Daniel Ginosar and Chemist Robert Fox, INL researchers leading the project, the SSC process has been specifically designed to take advantage of low-value waste feedstock, such as brown and black grease, waste fats, oil and greases (FOG), municipal waste water and similar waste streams. "We can use up to 100 percent free fatty acid feedstock without any additional pretreatment," Ginosar said.

SSC is a continuous process during which the oil or fat feedstock is mixed with alcohol and nontoxic supercritical fluid solvents, Ginosar said. In a single fluid phase, the resulting mixture is then passed over a solid catalyst to transform the free fatty acids into methyl esters. The process produces significantly less waste water than traditional biodiesel processes, and results in a glycerol byproduct that is not contaminated with any acids or bases, Ginosar said.

Fox and Ginosar began research on the SSC process in 1995. Although there were several starts and stops along the way, Fox said the eventual result has been a complete technology portfolio for which INL holds five patents. When the team first began to approach other researchers and those in the biodiesel industry with the process several years ago, Ginosar said most did not believe the technology would work. "But, we knew our chemistry … and science was solid, and continued to press on," he continued.

The SSC process was later licensed by BioFuelBox Inc., which launched a 3,000 gallon per day demonstration-scale facility featuring INL's SSC process in 2009. According to Ginosar and Fox, that facility was highly successful in proving the commercial viability of the technology. In addition to receiving the 2010 R&D 100 award, INL's SSC process was also recognized by the World Economic Forum when BioFuelBox was recognized as a Technology Pioneer by the WEF in late 2009.

BioFuelBox's license for the SSC process has since expired, said Ginosar, and INL is actively seeking other potential licensees for the technology. While it may be possible to retrofit some existing biodiesel plants to use the SSC process, Ginosar said it's more likely that the technology will be deployed in new projects. Although the initial capital costs of a new facility employing the SSC process will be higher than those of a traditional biodiesel facility, Fox said the additional costs can be recouped over several years, primarily through the use of lower cost waste feedstocks.

A video documenting the team's SSC research is available on INL's website.