Locally grown fuel: S&T student presents biodiesel research in Jefferson City

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On April 5, 2023

Biodiesel makes going green as easy as filling up at the gas station. Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay.

Chemical engineering senior Caleb Moellenhoff of Ballwin, Missouri, presented research that he says “could disrupt and transform the biodiesel industry” to lawmakers in Jefferson City as part of the 2023 University of Missouri System Undergraduate Research Day on April 6.

Moellenhoff is one of 14 Missouri S&T student researchers who presented their work during the event, which welcomes undergraduate students from all four UM System campuses to inform Missouri’s lawmakers about research at the state’s universities. The students have conducted research under the direction of faculty advisors. Since his first year at S&T, Moellenhoff has worked with Dr. Joseph Smith, a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering, to find a better way to produce biodiesel.

Biodiesel is a plant-based version of diesel fuel that could be a game-changer for states like Missouri. Biodiesel can be produced from a variety of sources, including waste vegetable oil from restaurants and dining halls. Biodiesel production boosts rural economies by making use of the waste byproducts of local crops, such as soybeans. The use of local crops also improves energy security by creating sources of fuel that can’t be cut off from outside the region.

A regular diesel engine doesn’t need any modification to run on biodiesel, which makes going green as easy as filling up at the gas station.

However, current biodiesel production has yet to catch up to its potential. The most common process for producing biodiesel is slow and uses chemical catalysts to speed up chemical reactions. These extra chemicals result in waste products that must be dealt with at the end of the process. Plus, biodiesel refineries are few and far between—there are only a handful of facilities in Missouri, mostly near the Kansas border. Shipping crops to be processed takes time and creates emissions, which reduces the overall benefit of the final product.

The refinery system that Moellenhoff proposes consists of seven modular nodes designed to fit inside a standard shipping container. The refinery could come to farms instead of crops being shipped to the refinery. The system uses membranes to separate most of the liquids, rather than the energy-intensive distillation processes currently in use. Moellenhoff says the new system should work without a catalyst, which would greatly reduce the amount of waste products compared to traditional biodiesel production.

“The hardest part is navigating around the unknowns,” says Moellenhoff. “For instance, creating a model of the process requires the input of experimental data, but obtaining that data requires a design derived from the process model. Reviewing the existing literature and implementing estimation techniques through critical thinking has been crucial to this project.”

“This research experience has motivated and equipped me for my future career,” says Moellenhoff, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. “I want to work to stabilize energy prices and improve energy sustainability and security by furthering the development of biomass-based and hybrid energy solutions.”

About Missouri University of Science and Technology

Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) is a STEM-focused research university of over 7,000 students. Part of the four-campus University of Missouri System and located in Rolla, Missouri, Missouri S&T offers 101 degrees in 40 areas of study and is among the nation’s top 10 universities for return on investment, according to Business Insider. For more information about Missouri S&T, visit www.mst.edu.

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On April 5, 2023. Posted in Chemical and Biochemical Engineering

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One thought on “Locally grown fuel: S&T student presents biodiesel research in Jefferson City”

  • Warwick W Doll Che '65 says:

    Caleb’s work in the ChE department to make a useful biodiesel out of farm waste reminds me of the project I was involved in the ChE department in 1965. We were taking CHE 255, chemical process design, under Professor Russel Primrose, and all the projects that year were required to address a way to take a farm waste product and make a useful end product. Masonite had a process to turn its waste wood products into a wood sugar. We were, therefore, challenged to turn the “unlimited” supply of scrub oak found on many farms into a wood sugar. We collected sawdust from a sawmill hydrolyzed it and did successfully make a sugar. However, the yields were low and the cost to use our process was way too costly. We did have a very enjoyable team effort and learn a lot. Working on real problems while in college is essential to becoming a skilled engineer.