An experiment that started
with an inspiration gave rise
to the invention of the world's
first biodiesel fuel
One cause of global warming is the rise in carbon dioxide levels due to the use of fossil fuels such as petroleum and coal. To reduce fossil fuel usage, a promising alternative is biofuels made from biologically derived organic resources other than fossil resources. Initiatives are underway to produce biodiesel fuel (BDF) from canola oil in Europe, soybean oil in North and South America, and waste cooking oil in Japan; with usage in Europe advancing in particular because of government support.
The most common BDF production method is transesterification reaction of animal/vegetable oil and alcohol using an alkali as a catalyst. However, in this method, there were significant challenges in terms of cost and environmental burden, including (1) deterioration of fuel quality due to soap being formed by reaction between the oil and alkali, (2) production of glycerin as a by-product alkali contamination, and (3) a complicated purification process being required to improve fuel quality. But in 2005, the Graduate School of Engineering, Tohoku University published a new BDF production method that resolved these challenges in one fell swoop. At the heart of R&D was Professor Naomi Shibasaki-Kitakawa of the Department of Chemical Engineering. She says, “When I attended a certain conference, I heard about a presentation on a BDF production method that used an enzyme attached to an ion-exchange resin as a catalyst. The ion-exchange resin is a synthetic resin that has the ability to exchange its own ions with ions in a solution, and it is used to separate specific substances. We knew that the ion-exchange resin itself had the same catalytic property as the enzyme, so we thought that it might be possible to catalyze the BDF production without the enzyme. We started the experiment based on that knowledge and inspiration. The reaction proceeded at a surprising rate, and BDF was easily produced. This became the world's first successful case of BDF production using a general-purpose ion exchange resin, commonly used in water treatment, as a solid catalyst. Moreover, this method has the distinctive features of no soap formation and no catalyst contamination in the product.”