A research team at the National University of Colombia has developed and patented a novel biodiesel production process that could significantly improve productivity while cutting space requirements and cost.

The process, called “countercurrent operation”, was designed by the research group in chemical and biochemical processes at the university’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, led by professor Paulo César Narváez Rincón, the university said in a 28 December statement.

The patented system consisted of an upright tube-shaped reactor with a special configuration that allowed oils or fats to come into contact with alcohol and produce biodiesel without mixing, which improved the exchange of components between the reactants and the separation of final products, all the while cutting back on process time.

The feedstock oil – such as palm, soyabean or jatropha oil – was fed into the system from the bottom while the alcohol mixed with a catalyst entered from the top, with the two liquids swapping places through the process due to differences in density.

“When the process begins inside the reactor, oil and alcohol come into contact without mixing, thanks to the design of the reactor. Its construction created a large contact area where two films are formed, one corresponding with the oil phase and another with the alcohol phase,” explained Narváez.

The produced biodiesel and glycerol are discharged from opposite ends of the process column, which the research team said provided clear cost and time benefits over conventional production methods that required mixing the oil and alcohol in two or three agitated tanks and finally separating the end products in a decanting tank.

As a result, the process required less and smaller equipment and made it possible to produce the same amount of product in a smaller plant, with a three-fold increase in productivity, the researchers said.

The product had been granted three patents in Colombia and one in the USA, the latter of which was chosen to house the patent due to higher marketing and commercialisation possibilities over other countries.

“In addition to considerations related to the biodiesel industry, the USA is a country in which patents not only give greater value to companies, but also make the possibility of negotiating with industries on the acquisition of our technology much more viable,” Narváez said.