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The chemistry of biodiesel

New catalyst improves the production of bio-fuels

MIGUEL BOYAYANTwo refineries in Mato Grosso have been licensed to use the new catalystMIGUEL BOYAYAN

Twenty five years after winning the Young Scientist and State Governor awards, chemist Osvaldo Cândido Lopes is finally seeing the evolution of his invention reach the market. By the end of the year a refinery for producing biodiesel should start functioning in Campo Verde, in the state of Mato Grosso. It will use a new catalyst, a chemical substance that is indispensable for transforming vegetable oil, extracted from oil-bearing seeds and animal fat, into bio-fuel. The product is the fruit of work that first started when Lopes, right after graduating from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) in the early 80s, did his Masters degree at the same university. The importance of this new catalyst can be measured in the three improvements it introduces in the industrial production of biodiesel: production volumes are greater, as a result of increased efficiency with levels of 99% compared to 96% with current products, it pollutes less and  ethanol can be used more effectively in the industrial process. The vast majority of catalysts today are imported and used with methanol, another ingredient in the process called trans-sterification, to obtain this biofuel (see Pesquisa FAPESP 134). The use of ethanol (sugarcane alcohol), a raw material that is fully renewable, unlike methanol that is extracted from oil or natural gas, may be  more efficient compared to conventional catalysts.

Lopes developed the first catalysts under the guidance of Professor Ulf Schuchardt, from the Unicamp Chemistry Institute.  At the time the biodiesel project, which was not even called this, alternating between pro-oil and pro-diesel, for political and economic reasons  it did not get the  same publicity as  the Pro-alcohol program.  So Lopes abandoned the idea for a few years until he met Professor Antônio José da Silva Maciel, from Unicamp’s Agricultural Engineering School (Feagri) and a schoolmate from his undergraduate days, in a congress in 2004. With new ideas and support from Professor Maciel, Lopes went back to academic circles, this time to Feagri, to do a PhD. “For more than 20 years I taught at the Methodist University of Piracicaba (Unimep) and at other colleges and on other courses, but it was my knowledge of analytical chemistry, particularly in the pharmaceutical area (which he taught), which aroused my interest in catalysts once again”, says Lopes.

As a doctoral student at Unicamp, Lopes, along with Maciel, patented the new type of catalyst in 2006 and in April that year they issued their first license for use to Biocamp from Mato Grosso. The work of registering the patent, advice and negotiation of the license was conducted by Unicamp’s Innovation Agency (Inova), which has already helped with 34 licensing contracts for innovations coming out of the university. The company from Mato Grosso plans to produce some 60 million liters of biodiesel a year from soybean oil, cotton and cattle fat.

Unicamp has already signed its second licensing contract, also in Mato Grosso, but now with a Biodiesel Cooperative (Cooperbio) from Cuiabá, that has 500 associates and was formed by the Associação Mato-grossense dos Produtores de Algodão (Ampa) [Mato Grosso Cotton Producers Association]. The aim of the cooperative is to produce biodiesel for consumption in its own truck fleet and for the agricultural machinery of its associates. The oil will be mainly produced from the rural producers’ own soybeans and should reach 100 million liters a year. Ordinary diesel  represents 8% of the total cost of an agricultural property in the region. With biodiesel this should drop to 4%, assuming that the farmers use the B100 formula, which comes totally from vegetable oils, unlike conventional diesel of which 2% (B2) is  of vegetable origin and  which will become obligatory nationwide as from 2008.

One of Inova’s main contributions to the negotiations was to define the calculation of royalties, based on biodiesel production. “Our proposal was to use a fixed percentage on the cost of each liter”, says Professor Roberto Lotufo, executive director of Inova. The numbers negotiated cannot be revealed. The license was signed with the refinery because the final preparation of the catalyst, in powder form, will be carried out where the biodiesel is produced.

As for the product’s ingredients, neither Lopes nor Maciel will say what it is made of. “Relative to other catalysts, its first characteristic is that it has no metal in its composition, so it doesn’t produce one of the of the production contaminants, which is soap”, says Professor Maciel. “Using this catalyst it’s possible to produce ethanol or methanol on a wide scale from raw materials, vegetable oils or animal fat, without the high purity requirement that is common with other catalysts.” Researchers classify the new product as in the third generation. “The first, in the 1920s, was sodium or potassium hydroxide. The second, used until today, is sodium and potassium methylate, which was created in the 1970s”, says Lopes.

“Our catalyst is the flag bearer of a larger consultancy project for building refineries. Therefore, we are relying on a partnership with two companies from the state of São Paulo: Lucato, from Limeira, an equipment manufacturer, and Alliance, an equipment and vegetable oil production company headquartered in Ourinhos”, says Lopes. Besides the researchers from Feagri, those from the Unicamp’s Food Engineering School and Institute of Chemistry are also collaborating in the project.

Oil from Indaiatuba
Part of this structure, including the catalyst itself, is already being used in Indaiatuba, in up-state São Paulo, in a public policy project called Urban Biodiesel. “Our proposal is to collect the waste frying oil left over from bars, restaurants and industrial and residential kitchens to produce biodiesel”, says Professor Maciel, who is coordinating the project financed by FAPESP and the local city administration. “We took part of our laboratory to the city. We have the capacity to produce 10,000-12,000 liters a month.” The Urban Biodiesel project is aimed both at protecting the environment, by preventing used oil from getting into sewers and rivers, as well as  generating income for a municipal social fund by selling the biodiesel.

The Harpia Harpya Institute, presided over by Bishop Mauro Morelli, an institution that focuses on nutrition and preservation of the environment, is also participating in the initiative. As a result of this experience Bishop Mauro intends to implement a national urban biodiesel program that will create jobs in the collection, production and distribution tasks, as well as forming a complimentary food fund for needy families. “We’re putting together a package to produce biodiesel from waste oil that can be reproduced in other cities”, says Professor Maciel, who  also has Inova support.

The Project
Producing biodiesel from waste vegetable oils, bringing about social inclusion and helping to conserve the environment  (nº 06/51908-9); Modality: Public Policies Research Program (PPPP); Coordinator:
Antônio José da Silva Maciel – Unicamp; Investment: R$ 48,260.00 (FAPESP)