November 27, 2007

New process could make biodiesel and hydrogen production cheaper and greener, scientists say

Leeds, England – Scientists at the University of Leeds in England have demonstrated a process that turns waste from biodiesel production into a hydrogen-rich gas that itself could be used as a fuel.

Biodiesel is biodegradable and non-toxic, but for each molecule of biodiesel produced, another molecule of low-value crude glycerol is generated; its disposal presents a growing economic and environmental problem. The new process, developed by Dr. Valerie Dupont and co-investigators at the University’s Faculty of Engineering, mixes glycerol with steam at a controlled temperature and pressure, separating the waste product into hydrogen, water and carbon dioxide, with no residues. A special absorbent material filters out the carbon dioxide for a purer product.

“Hydrogen has been identified as a key future fuel for low carbon energy systems such as power generation in fuel cells and as a transport fuel,” Dr. Dupont said. “Current production methods are expensive and unsustainable, using either increasingly scarce fossil fuel sources such as natural gas, or other less-efficient methods such as water electrolysis. Our process is a clean, renewable alternative to conventional methods. It produces something with high value from a low grade by-product for which there are few economical upgrading mechanisms. In addition, it’s a near ‘carbon-neutral’ process, since the CO2 generated is not derived from the use of fossil fuels.”

Dr. Dupont said she believes the process is easily scalable to industrial production and could potentially be an economically important, sustainable and environmentally-friendly way of meeting the growing demand for hydrogen.

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