U.K. researchers convert glycerin to methanol

By Ryan C. Christiansen | October 14, 2008
Web exclusive posted Nov. 11, 2008 at 1:48 p.m. CST

Isis Innovation Ltd., a technology transfer company that is wholly owned by the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, has patented a technology that uses a metal catalyst to convert glycerin into methanol. Glycerin, also called glycerol, is a byproduct of biodiesel production.

According to Edman Tsang, a researcher in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, the process works at a low temperature of 100 degrees Celsius (approximately 212 degrees Fahrenheit) and at 20 bars of pressure. The process produces only methanol and no byproducts.

Jamie Ferguson, a spokesperson for Isis Innovation, said the catalyst technology is a hydrogen reaction with glycerin. Previous studies showed that the main products from the hydrogenolysis of glycerin were propanediols and ethylene glycols, which are produced using the addition of hydrogen under relatively harsh conditions. However, Oxford researchers discovered a catalyst that-with the addition of hydrogen under relatively mild conditions-will completely break the carbon-carbon bonds within the glycerin, while keeping the carbon-oxygen bonds intact, which prevents hydrocarbon gases from being produced. The end product is methanol.

"As far as we are aware," Ferguson said, "no report on the catalytic formation of methanol from [glycerin] and hydrogen reaction has been proposed in the open literature, despite the fact that methanol was detected, and further degraded to methane, as a minor side product under harsh conditions."

Tsang said he estimates that approximately 350,000 metric tons of glycerin is incinerated in the United States each year. The new technology would provide a new method for producing methanol, 90 percent of which is currently produced from natural gas. Approximately 1 pound of glycerin is produced for every 9 pounds of vegetable oil feedstock processed into biodiesel.
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