KUBI is conducting research in the use of ethanol as a replacement for methanol for the production of biodiesel. In conventional biodiesel production facilities, excess methanol is used for the reaction. Traditionally, biodiesel is washed with water to remove and recover unreacted methanol. The resulting wastewater is treated by a sequence of distillations to separate and recover methanol. Recovery of the alcohol is critical for the economics of the biodiesel production process. Biodiesel manufacturing using ethanol in place of methanol has significant advantages. First, ethanol can be produced from renewable sources whereas methanol is primarily produced from crude oil. Second, ethanol is less toxic than methanol and safer to handle. Third, ethanol has a higher energy content (98.4 MJ gal-1) compared to methanol (81.2 MJ gal-1). However, ethanol is not used for biodiesel production because of the challenges in separating and recovering excess ethanol used in the process. Ethanol and water form an azeotrope which prevents ethanol and water separation using distillation, and thus prohibits ethanol recovery and recycle. Students in the KUBI are investigating ways to overcome the ethanol-water azeotrope issues.
Many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) warranty engines for up to 20% biodiesel - 80% diesel blends (B20). There is interest in the biodiesel community to use higher blends of biodiesel (B50 and higher). The students in the KUBI are working to support the adoption of higher blends of biodiesel by investigating the impact of blend percentage on fuel properties. The ASTM testing facility is instrumental in this work.
Students in the KUBI have worked to install temperature and flow control for the production facility. In addition, data logging instrumentation was added so that students could monitor the process and have a better understanding about the factors impacting fuel quality. This year, we will ugrade the production faculity to install stainless-steel reactors so the equipment is consistent with a small pilot scale facility. Students are participating in the design, installation, and testing of the new equipment. Additional process control and automation will be added to the system. The ultimate goal will be for the process to be completely integrated into the chemical engineering curriculum senior laboratory course by spring of 2025. This integration will result in freshmen and seniors being exposed to biodiesel production at bench and pilot scale and learning about the importance of the soybean industry in the Kansas economy.