Could biodiesel production finally become completely renewable?

As the world’s oil resources continually dwindle, the need for more renewable sources of fuels is apparent to all. What isn’t always obvious to the general public, however, is that we also need to look for renewable and sustainable sources of the basic chemicals used to manufacture not only these fuels, but all the of the fine chemicals in production today.

This article on the Chemistry World website describes a new chemical reaction which converts the waste glycerol from making biodiesel into methanol – one of the starting materials required to synthesise biodiesel in the first place. In the production of biodiesel, naturally-sourced oils are broken down via transesterification of methanol into glycerol, which then requires refining.

Researchers at the University of Cardiff found that, using magnesium oxide, they were able to reduce the glycerol back to methanol, effectively “closing the sustainability loop” on this process. The work is still in its very early stages, being published in Nature Chemistry only today, but it’s a very exciting and unexpected development in this area, and could really set the stage for a truly renewable process for the production of a biofuel.

Methanol isn’t only used for the production of fuels, and there’s the possibility that this process, or one similar, could lead to the production of other highly sought after chemicals being made more sustainable in the future. There is still a lot of development left to do on this reaction, but it is certainly intriguing, and worth keeping an eye on!

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