May 8, 08
UConn Researchers Develop Continuous Flow Biodiesel Reactor

Tucked away in an engineering lab at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the naked eye can see a reactor that recycles cooking oil into biodiesel fuel that powers campus shuttle buses.

But chemical engineering professor Richard Parnas and a team of researchers, including graduate student Matthew Boucher, see the potential to revolutionize industrial and retail transportation throughout the Northeast.

The university has a patent pending for technology known as a continuous flow biodiesel reactor/separator, which could be used at commercial biodiesel production facilities throughout the region. The apparatus can use new or used vegetable oil and patenting could take three to five years.

Boucher, who is pursuing a master's degree in chemical engineering, said it took "all of last summer" for him to build the system with Ryan Couture, now a senior in chemical engineering. Parnas directed its design.

"Where we might get to is the complete replacement of what we call distillate fuels," Parnas said. Examples of distillates are home heating oil and diesel fuel used to power industrial vehicles such as trucks, buses and oceanliners. Those two categories of distillates alone total 20 percent of petroleum consumption, he said.

Research by the university-based Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis shows UConn produces 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of waste oil per year and if UConn's entire fleet of shuttle buses ran on the lab-manufactured biodiesel, emissions could be reduced by 15 percent.

Biodiesel releases more energy than it consumes in its production, contrasting with pure diesel that requires more energy to produce than it yields, according to the center.

Historically, the inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel, originally considered vegetable seed oil for his creation but that idea was drowned out as domestic and foreign oil reserves were discovered. However, his initial idea is making a comeback under pressures to ward off global warming, conserve energy and preserve the environment.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, biodiesel can be manufactured from vegetable oils, animal fats or recycled restaurant grease. Currently, most biodiesel is produced from soybean oil at about 105 facilities and is available in every state.

Production has increased from very little 10 years ago to about 75 million gallons in 2005 and tripling to about 225 million gallons in 2006, according to EIA data.

While diesel fuel typically has more of an impact on industrial transportation needs, a team of researchers is working on a separate project that would impact consumers. Parnas said UConn and a couple of partner companies are studying the conversion of poplar wood into an alcohol called butenol.

Widespread use of biodiesel and butenol right now is hampered by higher pricing compared to conventional products and a limited number of suppliers. Biodiesel also has a tendency to gel in cold temperatures.

Fred Carstensen, economics professor and director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, and the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, say the one biofuel taking heat these days is ethanol, which is made from corn crops. The UConn studies in this report do not involve manufacturing ethanol.

"It takes so much energy to grow and convert the corn that there's no real benefit," Carstensen said.

CEI, the World Bank, environmental groups and others say taking crop land out of production for food is a major factor in a burgeoning world hunger crisis.

CEI Senior Fellow Marlo Lewis said federal mandates for ethanol production are driving up prices for staples such as wheat, rice and corn and are driving increasing numbers of poor families in developing nations into starvation.

But producers such as Pacific Ethanol Inc. say skyrocketing costs are not caused by ethanol development. Company spokesman Tim Raphael said the real culprits are rising fuel prices, drought, speculation in the futures market and demand in India and China.

"There's very little connection," Raphael said, adding that corn growers planted more crops last year on fewer acres of land and the U.S. had "record exports" of corn.

"Yields continue to improve," he said.

But the debate wages on, as Lewis said the drums are beginning to beat for an outright repeal of ethanol mandates or at the very least, a suspension.

Carstensen said alternative fuel sources -- in general, not just ethanol -- can be developed without sacrificing valuable crop land, while putting idle farm land to productive use.

He also points to health benefits such as improving air quality, since conventional diesel has more pollutants.

Bobby Inman, a former director of the National Security Agency and a director for the public policy research organization Public Agenda, said future energy policy must include alternative fuel sources, such as biofuels, to gain public support. Domestic drilling for oil resources and increasing the use of nuclear energy are not as popular, he said.