Final Report: Feasibility Study to Produce Biodiesel from Low Cost Oils and New Catalysts Derived from Agricultural & Forestry Residues

EPA Contract Number: EPD09031
Title: Feasibility Study to Produce Biodiesel from Low Cost Oils and New Catalysts Derived from Agricultural & Forestry Residues
Investigators: Keith, Lawrence H
Small Business: Down to Earth Energy (formerly Mountain Creek Enterprises)
EPA Contact: Richards, April
Phase: I
Project Period: February 1, 2009 through July 31, 2009
Project Amount: $70,000
RFA: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) - Phase I (2009) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) , SBIR - Emission Reductions and Biofuels


The objective of this research was to develop and demonstrate the feasibility of generating reusable and recoverable solid, porous acid and base catalysts for biodiesel production from biochar generated from agricultural and forestry residues (i.e., sustainable biomass). These new catalysts will greatly reduce the amount of waste pollutants generated as compared to the current methodology that uses sulfuric acid, sodium, or potassium hydroxide and generates more pollutants than biodiesel products. The new catalysts also will enable biodiesel to be made from low-cost oils that contain 11 percent or more of free fatty acids such as animal fats. This will help to more cost effectively produce biodiesel, as 75 percent of its price is dependent on the cost of feedstock.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

The best acidic char was an immobilized solid-phase reusable catalyst made from sulfonated pine chip char (400°C char, sulfonated at 100°C). Feasibility tests demonstrated its high efficiency in rapidly converting fatty acids to their respective methyl esters at relatively low temperatures (~65°C, 100% conversion up to 7x). These tests demonstrated the feasibility of first removing fatty acids in low-quality fat or oil by methylating them with an acid immobilized solid-phase reusable catalyst and second, using an alkaline immobilized solid-phase reusable catalyst to convert the methylated fat or oil into high-grade biodiesel.


Acidic and alkaline immobilized solid-phase catalysts from agricultural biomass (e.g., pine chips) can effectively be used with low-quality oils and fats containing high percentages of free fatty acids to convert them into high-grade biodiesel. These new catalysts can be reused multiple times and also are effective at relatively low temperatures (even at room temperature). Thus, they offer a novel and economical method to produce biodiesel compared to the current technology that uses sulfuric acid and sodium methylate with low- and high-grade oils and generates large amounts of hazardous wastes that must be disposed.
Down to Earth Energy is the first company to generate heterogeneous, solid acid catalysts from biomass. Commercialization efforts for its technology have focused on patent protection and acquiring funding to perform key commercialization studies in the months ahead. These study results will outline production costs and become the foundation for pro forma business models for both catalyst production and catalyst use within the biodiesel industry. Down to Earth Energy is currently in talks with companies in the activated carbon industry regarding production of its solid acid catalyst .
The key aspects of the technology that will drive forward its implementation forward in the marketplace can be quickly summed up as simplicity and economy of generation. Rather than relying on refined sugars or starches for catalyst generation, Down to Earth Energy utilizes inexpensive and readily available biomass, specifically pine residues. Low-temperature pyrolysis and functionalization of the biomass require less energy, yet form a carbon structure that is amenable to sulfonation (attachment of acidic functional groups) and stable once formed. Further activation of the char (e.g., steam, CO2, or chemicals) is not required to generate the solid acid catalyst, thus reducing production costs. 
In addition to the immediate value that the technology brings to the biodiesel production industry, great potential also exists for the use of solid acid catalysts in industrial production of other commodity and specialty chemicals. The active research being performed by Down to Earth Energy and its research partners on the following applications will provide vast future market opportunities for its technology with the development of second and third generation solid acid catalysts optimized for:
  • Catalytic esterification of bio-oil (from biomass pyrolysis) to stabilize the bio-oil for subsequent conversion to liquid fuels
  • Acid hydrolysis of cellulose to glucose and subsequent fermentation or catalytic processing to liquid fuels
  • Acid hydrolysis of starch to glucose for ethanol production (may have a competitive advantage over the use of enzymes in the ethanol industry
  • Ethylene and diethyl ether from ethanol

Supplemental Keywords:

small business, SBIR, EPA, biodiesel, low-cost oil, new catalyst, catalyst, reusable catalyst, agricultural residue, forestry residue, biodiesel production, sustainable biomass, waste pollutants, sodium, sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, animal fats, free fatty acids, low-quality fat, low-quality oil, yellow grease, rendered fat, methyl ester, solid-phase, pyrolytic char, agricultural biomass, forestry biomass, peanut hulls, pecan shells, pine chips, transesterification technology, homogeneous base catalysts, immobilized, reuse, catalytic decay, synthesized catalysts

SBIR Phase II:

Commercialization of Solid Acid and Base Catalysts Derived from Biochar Optimized to Produce Biodiesel from Low Cost Oils  | Final Report