Advances in biodiesel technology: 4 innovations that show promise


Green transportation is one of the most important considerations in the ongoing fight against climate change. Transit accounts for 29% of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other category. Thankfully, there are many solutions out there to this issue, and biodiesel is a promising one.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Biodiesel is a type of diesel fuel made from plant and animal matter instead of petroleum. Switching petroleum out for biodiesel can reduce carbon emissions by 74%, and most engines don’t need any modifications to use these fuels. You can put biodiesel in virtually any diesel engine, and it will still work.

Recent advances in biodiesel technology make it even more promising. Here’s a look at four of the most impressive of these innovations.

1. Algae Feedstocks

Soybean oil currently accounts for most biodiesel production in the U.S. The problem with this and other first-generation biofuels is that they use materials that would otherwise be food, potentially limiting the world’s supply. New advances have found alternatives, though, with algae being one of the most promising.

Algae isn’t a food source, and it can grow in areas where other crops can’t, so it won’t compete with them. It also yields more fuel, making it more cost-effective. The only problem is that, in the past, methods for extracting the necessary fatty acids from it consumed a lot of energy.

In 2019, researchers at the University of Utah developed a new method that bypasses the most energy-intensive parts of the process. As a result, using algae as a feedstock for biodiesel can be far more eco-friendly and affordable. The new method is also faster, further driving down production costs.

2. Yeast Feedstocks

Another promising feedstock breakthrough comes from yeast. An Australian startup called MicroBioGen recently discovered a method that uses genetically modified yeast to produce biofuels. Previous attempts at yeast feedstocks were expensive and had low yields, but this genetically modified solution provides a way forward.

MicroBioGen’s modified yeast can grow in its own waste stream. That lets it expand and produce biofuel on a much larger scale, producing far higher yields. It also creates a high-protein feed as a secondary product, which biodiesel producers can then sell to farms. Those sales would help make up for production costs, making biodiesel more affordable.

This yeast-based fuel is a second-generation biofuel like algae solutions, so it doesn’t take away from food supplies. The high-protein byproduct takes that advantage even further, as farmers can use it to feed cattle and other animals. As a result, this biodiesel doesn’t just not limit food production, but it helps increase it.


3. Two-Stage Biodiesel Processing

One of the most important considerations in biodiesel production is cost. Many people won’t switch to sustainable fuel if it’s not as cheap or cheaper than the fossil fuel alternative. Considering the cost of much green transportation, like electric vehicles, that’s a challenge.

Electric cars are expensive, with their batteries alone costing $7,350 on average, even after an 87% drop in price over the past decade. Biodiesel provides an excellent alternative since drivers won’t need a new car to use it and can still reduce their emissions. Biodiesel must remain affordable to maximize these benefits, and two-stage processing can help with that.

Most biodiesel production methods use a single stage for hydrotreating, which removes impurities, and dewaxing, which makes fuels more fluid. ExxonMobil recently introduced a system that separates these steps into phases. This gives it more control over the process and increases yields.

Higher yields mean producers can create more biodiesel with the same amount of feedstock. In turn, costs will drop, making biodiesel a more enticing alternative to the petroleum standard.

4. Plasma Processing

Another recent advance to biodiesel processing involves plasma. The Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council (MSRPC) recently implemented a plasma discharge technology to a biodiesel production operation. The change allowed it to use a lower-cost catalyst in the process, driving down expenses.

The system turns the liquid feedstock mixture into plasma for a moment. This phase change happens in mere milliseconds, so it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the process. What it does change is how the elements in the mixture interact with the catalyst.

Momentarily changing the mixture into a plasma makes the molecules more excited, improving their conductivity. That is what allowed MSRPC to use a lower-cost catalyst that would have otherwise been ineffective. If more facilities implemented this type of technology, biodiesel production could be far cheaper.

Biodiesel Is Making the World a Greener Place

Biodiesel’s low emissions and high flexibility make it an ideal stepping stone toward sustainability. Drivers can start using these fuels to reduce their discharge as zero-emissions vehicles gradually become more affordable and versatile. This will make the transition to zero-emissions transportation easier, and it should happen quickly. With these advances, biodiesel can become more affordable, sustainable, and accessible, helping it become standard faster. As researchers build on these innovations, biodiesel could overtake fossil fuels before long, making transportation far greener without disruption. The transition to fully electric vehicles will then be a smoother one.

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