Researchers seek to improve glycerin usage, quality standards

By Bryan Sims | October 14, 2008
If the American biodiesel industry ramps up production in order to meet the federal renewable fuels standard mandated for 2009, an influx of crude glycerin will enter the market.

Despite continued demand for crude glycerin in the export markets-particularly from China-U.S. biodiesel producers must find alternative markets for the byproduct, which is prohibitively expensive to purify for industrial uses. To better accomplish this, research is being conducted to explore alternative methods for refining crude glycerin in order to handle future supply.

Zhiyou Wen, an assistant professor of biological engineering systems at Virginia Tech's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and his team of scientists have discovered a novel fermentation process using crude glycerin to produce omega-3 fatty acids in microalgae. After the fatty acids are produced, the algae can then be used as animal feed. This mimics a natural process in which fish, the most common source of omega-3 fatty acids for humans, eat the algae and then retain the healthful compounds in their bodies. "We have shown that it is possible to use the crude glycerol byproduct from the biodiesel industry as a carbon source for microalgae that produce omega-3 fatty acids," Wen said. "After thorough chemical analysis, we have also shown that the algae biomass composition has the same quality as the commercial algae product." Wen partnered with Steven Craig, senior research scientist at Virginia Cobia Farms, to use crude-glycerin-derived algae as fish feed. "The results so far have been promising," Wen said. "The fish fed the algae had significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids."

Des Moines, Iowa-based Bratney Cos., in partnership with German biodiesel technology provider Cimbria Sket GmbH, introduced an improved glycerin refining process that is capable of removing odor from the final product. The technology would benefit current and future biodiesel producers wanting a consistent product and increased profit because glycerin tends to be discriminated against in the market due to its odor. "With Cimbria Sket's latest improvement to our industry-leading glycerin technology, we can now offer refined glycerin that not only meets United States Pharmacopeia requirements but also is guaranteed to be odorless," said Paul Brown, a Bratney Cos. spokesman.

Meanwhile, Monarch Petroleum Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Voyager Petroleum Inc., announced that it will begin processing crude glycerin for biodiesel producers at its 20,000-square-foot facility in Detroit. Monarch's process involves separating glycerin, fatty acids and biodiesel, as well as neutralizing catalysts, and removing water and alcohol. The company plans to charge a tolling fee for the service. According to Sebastien DuFort, chief executive officer of Voyager, the company may expand its process to further refine the separated glycerin so that manufacturers can utilize a higher grade of glycerin to their fullest cost advantage, which should result in higher margins. "By expanding our processing capabilities, we can tailor each batch to run on the input material mix," he said. "Glycerin is an environmentally friendly substitute for common petrochemicals on the market. We want to be ahead of the market needs by providing the capability to process crude glycerin."
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