Researchers at the University of Newcastle are working on new uses for glycerol. For example catalysis converts it into methanol for the creation of biofuel.

Currently, biodiesel industries are producing over a million tonnes of glycerol every year. For every molecule of biodiesel produced, one molecule of glycerol is produced. The problem is that no one seems to know what to do with it.

“Glycerol has some application in pharmaceuticals, foods, and personal care, but because of the excessive quantities being produced at the moment, most of it is being burned. This is a waste of a potentially valuable resource,” says Dr Michael Stockenhuber.

Researchers at the University of Newcastle, lead by Dr Stockenhuber, are working on new uses for glycerol by turning it into useful products.

The first area of interest utilises a catalyst to convert glycerol into methanol. This can then be recycled by being redirected into the process of creating the bio-diesel. This saves the money ordinarily needed to purchase methanol for the process, and also replaces the need to burn fossil fuels.

“Currently, fossil fuels are used to manufacture methanol for biodiesel. The new method would reduce that carbon footprint to zero,” says Dr Stockenhuber.

Two approaches, both a direct and indirect route, have been investigated for the conversion of glycerol into methanol. Both have met with success but require additional external funding for improving the catalytic system, as well as continued work on process stability and scaleup.

Dr Brent Jenkins, CEO of Newcastle Innovation, says it is important to support work that will potentially save industry both time and money.

“Not only that but these process offer cleaner options for producing methanol. The reduction of negative effects on the environment is desireable in any industry.”

The second area of interest for Dr Stockenhuber and his team involves a catalyst that changes the glycerol into a chemical that can function as an intermediate for the production ofpolymers and surfactants. These can then be used for specialised engineering applications, making the glycerol-based chemical highly valuable.

The glycerol conversion in this case will entail a number of stages, the first two of which have already been established and are being optimised by the University’s research team.

“The refinement of this process will allow us to skip over some steps, as well as improve the atom economy of the product. This simplifies the process, reduces the time and energy input, and improves the quality of the product,” says Dr Stockenhuber.

“This new option for glycerol usage has signficant commercial potential, due its contribution to numerous applications,” said Dr Jenkins.

The researchers behind the catalytic system are also seeking further funding for the improvement of the process simulation and scaleup.