The right spark for a green future
HONG KONG PROJECT FINDS A WAY TO PRODUCE BIODIESEL WHILE REDUCING DAMAGING ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT
The production of cleaner-burning fuel that would reduce pollution and carbon emissions is one of the great promises of biofuels — liquid energy produced from living things or their waste. One of the most promising of biofuels is made from animal fat, vegetable oils and waste oils, and is called biodiesel.
Until now, the conventional chemical process to produce biodiesel has created vast quantities of contaminated water. But some clever technology under development at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) is helping create a truly green fuel.
Dr Joseph Yung Ka-fu, assistant professor at PolyU’s Department of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology, says the contradiction in creating carbon-neutral fuel from a renewable source is that its byproduct is wastewater.
“It leads to the dilemma that a supposedly green technology is actually polluting our environment,” he says.
“It becomes even worse if we use low-grade unrefined feedstock like waste cooking oil that contains contaminants such as free fatty acids.”
The research team led by Yung shared an “a-ha” moment when they took a closer look at the catalyst that sparked the chemical transformation from fatty sludge to fuel. The innovation came with the use of a solid metal catalyst powder that was better suited to breaking down fatty acids and turned the sole by-product of the biodiesel process, glycerol, into a valuable additive for the fuel itself.
PolyU’s catalyst is designed for use in a one-step synthesis of biodiesel from poor quality oils, in an energysaving, water-conserving and sustainable process. It took the team three years to develop the catalyst in the chemical reaction that operates at a lower reaction temperature and pressure than current methods.
PolyU’s practical solution is a living example of both the university’s spirit of innovation and of the power of technology transfer put into practice.
“The philosophy of our design is that the technology should not be only a ‘laboratory’ project but an applicable solution to solve problems,” says Yung.
Products have to be uncomplicated, scalable across a number of markets, pollution-free and affordable.
“This technology is aimed at the green production of biodiesel from most of the unrefined crude oils like waste cooking oil, jatropha plant oil, palm oil, acidified soy oil, rice bran oil, algae oil and even animal fats,” says Yung.
“It can be adopted by most of the biodiesel producers with some reactor updates. As a result, the biodiesel can be applicable to most diesel-running cars with only minor tuning and the pollutant gas emitted will be greatly reduced.”
“We’re now investigating how to improve the current production from a batch operation to a continuous flow reaction, which will help reduce the initial set-up and running costs that require refiners to have huge reaction tanks,” adds Yung.
Meanwhile, the team is working closely with PolyU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship (IfE) to promote the technology and identify knowledge transfer opportunities for it.
For instance, it was featured in the International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva along with eight more PolyU technologies in April. The biodiesel catalyst project alone won a gold medal and a special award from Thailand at the Swiss event.
The exhibition is “an iconic event in the global technology arena,” says Idy To, assistant director for marketing and industrial network at IfE.
“It provides a prime venue where top innovators and the most talented technology experts gather to showcase their inventions and research strengths. We view the exhibition as an important platform where we can promote PolyU’s innovations and technologies,” To says.
As a main communication channel between PolyU and industry, IfE is dedicated to driving technology transfer, commercialization, university- industry partnership and entrepreneurship development.
“Technology transfer enables our partner companies to leverage PolyU’s rich portfolio of patented technologies to enhance their competitiveness and develop new products,” she adds.
Tools such as the Asia IP Exchange (AsiaIPEX) are proving invaluable to their mission.
“AsiaIPEX allows users from around the world to conveniently browse patented innovations by categories, innovating institutions and geographical origins, providing a one-stop portal with useful IP resources for technology transfer stakeholders worldwide,” To notes.
“This partnership has contributed to the expansion of our global exposure and network, further boosting awareness of PolyU’s research strengths and technologies, while increasing the opportunities for commercialization.”
A biodiesel catalyst project from Hong Kong Polytechnic University won awards at the International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva. Pictured are the winning team: (from left) Wong Wing-tak, chair professor and head of the department of chemical technology; Joseph Yung Ka-fu, an associate professor, and Kwong Tsz-lung, a research student, both from the department of applied biology and chemical technology.
The catalyst (left) developed by the PolyU research team over three years is designed for use in a one-step synthesis of biodiesel from poor quality oils, in an energy-saving, water-conserving and sustainable process.