In Michigan, with support from the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee, Dr. Jonathan Wenzel, assistant professor of Chemical Engineering at Kettering University, is attempting to speed up the process of making biodiesel – a renewable fuel that is made using predominantly soybean oil in the United States, but can be made from animal fats and other vegetable oils.
Wenzel’s scientific mission: transform the process of making biodiesel by increasing the speed at which soybean oil reacts with methanol to produce biodiesel.
“Our approach was to take methanol, heat it and pressurize it beyond its critical point to create supercritical methanol,” Wenzel said. “Supercritical methanol can more readily dissolve the soybean oil, and combined with the higher temperatures we can react it without a catalyst.”
Supercritical methanol is created by elevating the temperature and pressure of regular methanol to the critical point that encourages it to act as a liquid and gas simultaneously which gives it unique solvent properties. Using this methodology, Wenzel asserts that biodiesel, which can be used to fuel engines that run on diesel, can be made in under 10 minutes. The methodology, when increased in scale, may serve as an economic opportunity.