Breakthrough in biodiesel process

Breakthrough in biodiesel process

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) in Hyderabad have discovered a way of using a well-known fungus to “substantially" accelerate the process and thereby reduce the cost of producing biodiesel.

“We are just about to initiate patent filing procedures, which is why I can’t give you numbers on the increase in efficiency that our process will bring about," said Ravi Potumarthi, a research scholar involved with the project.

The discovery was first reported in a science blog run by Wired magazine.

The typical process of manufacturing biodiesel involves mixing the ingredients and heating them for hours. The process of heating alters the chemical structure of vegetable oil, making it similar to diesel.

Researchers at IICT have discovered an alternative process, which is not only more efficient, but can also be employed at room temperature. This entails passing the vegetable oil—in this case sunflower oil—and methanol through a bed of pellets made from spores of a fungus, Metarhizium anisopliae. An enzyme, lipase, produced by the fungus, acts as the catalyst, replacing the heating process, and makes it possible to manufacture biodiesel with “impressive efficiency at room temperature", according to Potumarthi.

Potumarthi added that the process would work with other plant oils, including oil made from jatropha.

However, an executive at a company that produces biodiesel the traditional way said the use of fungi and enzymes was futuristic. “Right now, we have a problem of raw material, because we don’t have enough vegetable oil and seeds from jatropha and karanja," said B. Jayakumar, director, Nandan Biomatrix Ltd, a company involved in the processing of biodiesel. “In fact, the technologies we now use can be used to manufacture high-quality biodiesel within 1.5 hours, and technology even exists to continually manufacture the oil," he added. Such technologies are costly, he said, without revealing more details.

The IICT process is cheaper, claimed Potumarthi, who, too, refused to give details.

“We believe that the (savings in) costs involved in efficient, quick manufacture of good quality biodiesel are substantial, and are confident that our process can drastically bring them down," he added.

Diwakar Singh, a biofuels expert with the Indian Agricultural Research Institute here, said the technology was futuristic and that since “leading research centres are internationally focusing on using micro-organisms for biodiesel production, it’s a good move".

Some experts have expressed caution because the fungus, which commonly grows in a wide range of soils, kills pests such as grasshoppers and termites.

“It’s safe for humans though, and in fact is used as an insecticide," said Ravidas Gupta, a botanist at the Delhi University’s microbiology department. “My only worry is that given the excitement in jatropha, people will tend to over-exploit the fungus and this could lead to ecological imbalance."