A product coming from processing vegetable oil is known as biodiesel which is a biofuel that in Colombia is combined with oil-derived diesel and whose production, according to the Colombian Federation of Biofuels, during August of 2017 was 36,858 tons.
The patented system consists of using a tube-like reactor and combining oils with alcohols with the purpose of them reacting without mixing in a way that the exchange of its components is improved and later separation is performed in less time than that recorded in current processes.
“The origin of the system comes from my doctoral thesis project of 2003 in which I assessed a reactor in a different contact system as that protected by the patent. Then, based on an idea of Professor Gerardo Rodríguez, we developed a new system with Juan Guillermo Cadavid, another doctoral student, and assessed another prototype at the UNal Laboratory of Chemical Engineering. Then we carried out simulations, scaling and designed a pilot plant to implement the system, all with the support of the UNal-Bogota Research and Extension Directorate, besides two research projects funded by the Colombian Administrative Department for Science Technology and Innovation (Colciencias, for its Spanish acronym),” said Narváez.
As the process requires smaller equipment, as demonstrated by the prototype built at the UNal-Bogotá Laboratory of Chemical Engineering, the patented process allows producing the same quantity in a smaller plant, with the consequential increased productivity of three times that of conventional reactors.
While the oil coming from oil palm, soy or nettlespurge (jatropha) crops enters the reactor from the bottom, the middle or upper part of the reactor has methanol along with another substance used to increase the chemical reaction speed or catalyzer, which could be sodium methoxide or sodium hydroxide.
Therefore the procedure was dubbed as “countercurrent operation”, because oil and alcohol flow in opposite directions, while the liquid phase rich in oil ascends, the transformed by alcohols descends, due to the difference in densities produced by the process.
“When the process within the reactor begins, oil and alcohol come into contact without mixing, thanks to a semi-structured gasket which acts like a filling,” said Narváez.
Traditionally this process is performed using shakers which end up dispersing the abovementioned phases; the patented procedure makes the separation after the reaction to be produced simultaneously.
“As the gasket has a configuration that allows it to generate a large contact area, the reactor produces two films, an oil phase, and an alcohol phase,” said Narváez.
The final product of the process produces biodiesel and glycerol. While the former remains in the oil phase and flows from the upper part of the reactor, the second phase goes with the alcohol and flows from the bottom part of the reactor.
Taking into account that the traditional system requires using between two and three shaker reactors, where oil and alcohol are continuously mixed and later decanted to separate the products, the system developed has great marketing potential.
The UNal-Bogotá Directorate of Research and Extension (DIEB, for its Spanish acronym) has supported two great patent processes for the production of biodiesel, including a Colombian patent granted in 2016 by the Colombian Superintendence of Industry and Trade.
Concordantly, the new process is registered with the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) and presented at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) with the purpose of patenting at an international level.
Although they considered several countries according to the production and massive use of biodiesel, they decided on United States and therefore Office of Patents granted the respective patent in September of last year.
“Besides the considerations regarding this industry, the United States is a country where patents do not also provide greater value to companies but make it easier to do business with industries who want to acquire these types of technologies,” said Aida Mayerly Fúquene, of the DIEB Knowledge Transference Team.