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Zirconia – A Fuel’s Gem

santi, Minn. — Biodiesel can be made from almost anything that has fats or oils — beans, pine trees, beef tallow, chicken fat, restaurant grease. With current technologies, pure soy oil is most efficiently converted to fuel. But breakthrough technology may make waste grease and even algae “pond scum” the fuels of the future.

Minnesota chemists have invented a way to use metal oxides to quickly and cleanly convert unrefined oils to biodiesel. The “Mcgyan” process will be tested commercially in a biodiesel demonstration plant opening this spring in Isanti. Ever Cat Fuels will produce 3 million gallons of biodiesel annually.

“This process can use feedstocks that the traditional biodiesel process cannot use,” says Dave Wendorf, marketing director of McNeff Research Consultants, which holds intellectual property rights to the patent pending Mcgyan process.

Traditional biodiesel processing requires first removing free fatty
acids from oils or fats, adding alkali catalysts to convert triglycerides to fuel, then washing the biodiesel with water to remove the neutralized catalyst. The Mcgyan process doesn’t require any of those steps.

College chemist’s idea

The revolutionary process started as a college chemistry project in the summer 2006. Augsburg student Brian Krohn investigated biodiesel processes and found research on zirconium-based catalysts.

Krohn consulted his chemistry professor, Arlin Gyberg, who contacted a former student, Clayton McNeff, a zirconia expert and vice president of SarTec Corporation in Anoka. With the help of SarTec chemist Ben Yan, they added zirconia-based catalyst to some soybean oil and alcohol and added some heat to see what would happen.

It didn’t work.

“Clayton then suggested, ‘If you add more heat to the catalytic material and run the reaction under pressure in a continuous reactor, something might happen.’ And voila— it did. It changed color so they knew they had done something; it turned out they had made biodiesel.”

After further development, the chemists titled their invention “Mcgyan,” using a combination of their names. Mcgyan is a one-step process that“converts feedstock to biodiesel in seconds versus hours” that the traditional biodiesel batch process takes, Wendorf says.

The team discovered their process could convert anything with triglycerides or free fatty acids into fuel — without refining the fats and oils first. “To make biodiesel, they (current processors) have to remove fatty acids from the oil; otherwise it makes soap,” Wendorf says. “With our process, it’s just the opposite. We need feedstocks with fatty acids, the higher the better … beef tallow, chicken fat. … It gets us away from the food versus fuel debate. We don’t have to worry about using food-grade soy oil; we can use something else.”

Oil or tallow and alcohol are fed into one end of a cylinder-shaped reactor. Biodiesel comes out the other end, along with a small amount of methanol that quickly separates from biodiesel in a fractioning still. In the traditional
biodiesel batch process, “you put soy oil in a big tank and add a strongbase catalyst that has to be neutralized and washed out of the biodiesel. This is a much simpler process that requires no chemicals,no washing.”

Pilot to full-scale plant

A year after building an experimental reactor in SarTec’s lab, McNeff decided to build a pilot plant at SarTec that can produce 50,000 gallons of diesel per year. Because the pilot plant produced almost no regulated emissions, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said an emissions permit wasn’t needed when McNeff planned a larger facility. “Our actual footprint is very small compared to a traditional biodiesel plant, so you can put it almost anywhere,” Wendorf says.

Construction is now being completed on the10,000-square-foot Ever Cat Fuels facility. The plant will initially use extracted corn oil from distiller’s dry grains, an ethanol byproduct that contains 2.5 to 5 percent rancid oil, and the defatted grains will be sold for livestock feed. Distiller’s grain oil is abouthalf the cost of soy oil.

“In our lab, we’ve tested probably 20 to 30 different feedstocks,” Wendorf says. Tall oil from paper processing looks promising, as does palm-oil waste. But more high-oil commodities are needed to keep up with escalating demands for biodiesel. “If you took all the feedstock available today — soy oil and waste greases — and made biodiesel, you’d still only make a small percentage of our need in the United States.”

Minnesota was the first state in the nation to mandate biodiesel blends, and the current two-percent biodiesel mandate will increase to 20 percent by 2015. Not only is biodiesel homegrown and renewable, it emits far less sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and smoke particulate than petrodiesel. It can be used like petrodiesel without any engine modifications, and gelling in cold temperatures can be prevented by using the right blends and fuel grade.

AURI has tested biodiesel fuel and low–temperature additives from all Minnesota producers, including Ever Cat Fuels. “Our tests show there shouldn’t be any problems with their biodiesel in cold temperatures,” says Doug Root, AURI scientist in Marshall.

Nationwide, there are now 175 biodiesel plants and markets are soaring. Annual U.S. biodiesel sales jumped from 2 million gallons in 2000 to 25 million gallons in 2004. Today demand approaches 450 million gallons.

Algae fuel

What high-oil commodity could meet growing biodiesel demands? Algae, known in the wild as pond scum, Wendorf says. Cultivated algae can produce 1,200 to 9,000 gallons of oil per acre, compared to 48 gallons per acre for soy oil. “When we get algae commercialized, thatessentially could settle our biodiesel dilemma. We need something like algae that grows very rapidly.”

“A decade from now, algae will be a major farming crop,” Wendorf says. “All you need are shallow ponds. You don’t have to take your prime land or hay fields. “Algae has been around for millions of years; there are millions of species.” While high-oil algae hybrids are being cultivated, “the ones in nature that have survived are what we’re going to use. They’re the winners.”