A tiny chemical reactor that can convert vegetable oil directly into biodiesel could help farmers turn some of their crops into homegrown fuel to operate agricultural equipment instead of relying on costly imported oil.
"This is all about producing energy in such a way that it liberates people," said Goran Jovanovic, a chemical engineering professor at Oregon State University who developed the microreactor.
The device — about the size of a credit card — pumps vegetable oil and alcohol through tiny parallel channels, each smaller than a human hair, to convert the oil into biodiesel almost instantly.
By comparison, it takes more than a day to produce biodiesel with current technology.
Conventional production involves dissolving a catalyst, such as sodium hydroxide, in alcohol, then stirring it into vegetable oil in large vats for about two hours. The mixture then has to sit for 12 to 24 hours while a slow chemical reaction forms biodiesel along with glycerin, a byproduct.
The glycerin is separated and can be used to make other products, such as soaps, but it still contains the chemical catalyst, which must be neutralized and removed using hydrochloric acid, a long and costly process.
The microreactor under development by the university and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute eliminates the mixing, the standing time and maybe even the need for a catalyst.
"If we're successful with this, nobody will ever make biodiesel any other way," Jovanovic said.
The device is small, but it can be stacked in banks to increase production levels to the volume required for commercial use, he said.
Biodiesel production on the farm also could reduce distribution costs by eliminating the need for tanker truck fuel delivery, part of the growing effort to meet fuel demand locally _ instead of relying on distant refineries and tanker transport.
"Distributed energy production means you can use local resources _ farmers can produce all the energy they need from what they grow on their own farms," Jovanovic said.