But they might revolutionize biodiesel production, making it cheaper, faster, and less toxic. The technology should produce a cleaner fuel and a cleaner glycerol coproduct. And it can be used in existing biodiesel plants.

“This technology can change how biodiesel is produced,” says Lin, Iowa State University professor of chemistry and inventor of the nanosphere-based catalyst.

Catilin Inc., Ames, Iowa, plans to build a biodiesel pilot plant at the Iowa Energy Center’s Biomass Energy Conversion Facility in Nevada. It’s goal, over the next 18 months, is to produce enough nanosphere catalysts to get biodiesel production to pilotplant scale (300 gallons/day).

The technology converts vegetable oils or animal fats into fuel by using nanospheres with acidic catalysts that react with the free fatty acids and basic catalysts. It replaces sodium methoxide – a toxic, corrosive, and flammable catalyst – in biodiesel production. And that eliminates production steps that include acid neutralization, water washes, and separations, all of which dissolve the toxic catalyst so it can’t be used again.

Catilin’s nanospheres are solid and that makes them easier to handle. They can also be recovered from the chemical mixture and recycled. And they can be used in existing biodiesel plants without major equipment changes.

Victor Lin

Victor Lin, an Iowa State University professor of chemistry, uses nanotechnology and chemistry to improve biodiesel production.