This microscopic sponge converts cooking oil into biodiesel – and makes it cheap

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Scientists at RMIT in Australia have developed a small sponge with great potential. The micron-sized material can be used to convert cooking oil, usually discarded, into biodiesel in a very cost-effective way.

Sponge material is a new type of ultra-efficient catalyst for the transformation of complex molecules into raw materials.

The RMIT team actually describes it as unique, in that a single material has the ability to perform a number of different chemical reactions, while providing a high degree of control over production.

“Catalysts have been developed that can perform multiple reactions simultaneously, but these approaches provide little control over reactions and tend to be inefficient and unpredictable,” explains Professor Karen Wilson.

“Our bio-inspired approach looks at nature’s catalysts – enzymes – to develop a powerful and accurate way to perform multiple reactions in a set sequence. It’s like having a nanoscale production line for chemical reactions – all housed in a single, small and super-efficient catalyst particle. ”

How does the miracle sponge work?

The sponge catalyst is the size of microns and is very porous. When molecules are inserted into the sponge, they undergo a chemical reaction in the large pores and then make their way through the smaller pores, where a second chemical reaction takes place.

The process is not only inexpensive, but uses lower quality ingredients that would otherwise be waste. These include cooking oil, which now needs to be thoroughly cleaned in an energy-intensive process to remove its contaminants before it can be turned into biodiesel.

The approaches currently used can only handle raw materials with 1-2% contaminants, while the new sustainable process developed by the RMIT team can manage raw materials that contain up to 50% contaminants.

The researchers say that, in its current form, the catalyst can convert these types of lower quality raw materials into low-carbon biodiesel, using virtually only a large container, along with heating and gentle agitation.

With additional work, the technology could be adapted to produce aircraft fuel from agricultural waste, rubber tires or algae.

In addition, the efficiency of the technology could double the productivity of the processes currently used to produce chemical precursors for a wide variety of products, such as medicines and packaging, from food waste, tires and microplastics.

From here, the researchers work to expand the process to a larger production, suitable for marketing.

“Our new catalysts can help us get the full value of resources that would normally be wasted – from used cooking oil to rice husks and vegetable peels – to advance the circular economy,” says Adam Lee, Professor research participant.

“And by radically increasing efficiency, they could help us significantly reduce environmental pollution from chemical production and bring us closer to the ecological chemistry revolution.”


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