Senior’s biodiesel process attracts national attention

Spending a few days in Orlando, Florida in February is a great gig if you can get it and that’s just what Daniel Mallin, a CELS Energy Fellow, will be doing as a reward for his unique project involving the production of biodiesel fuel.Mallin, a senior working toward two degrees, one in chemical engineering and the other in biological sciences, recently won a scholarship to attend the National Biodiesel Conference to present a poster and explain a special biodiesel process that he developed as an Energy Fellow.Mallin, a native of Cranston, and another Energy Fellow, Andrew Walker, became interns at Newport Biodiesel, the only company in the state that converts waste vegetable oil into fuel for diesel engines. The company collects thousands of gallons annually from some 1,000 restaurants around New England and converts the material into fuel.

The problem is some of vegetable oil that is collected has higher concentrations of water and free fatty acids and that poses production problems at times.

Mallin, Walker and Matt Harris, one of the co-founders of Newport Biodiesel heard about on-line discussions about the issues surrounding oils with high amounts of water and free fatty acids. Harris suggested to his interns that they set up an experiment to see whether they can deal with the problem.

The solution they developed (largely by trial and error) was to add glycerol in the pre-wash cycle and to mix it for about an hour. The process removes the water and reduces the free fatty acids to below measurable levels, said Mallin.

Asked whether the process he devised is being used now at Newport Biodiesel, Mallin said “Yes and no.” It is used, he explained, when batches of vegetable oil are high in water and free fatty acids. This is determined at the outset by testing the incoming samples. If the samples are lower in water and free fatty acids then the usual processing is used. The treatment with glycerol, explained Mallin requires the use of more methanol which has to be replenished—a cost issue.

Essentially the glycerol makes for a more efficient processing in the case of oils with high water and free fatty acids content. The processing ratio is about one gallon of glycerol to seven gallons of oil. Using glycerol cuts down on the amount of catalysts needed.

Biodiesel

Mallin is quick to point out that the process he came up with was “not my specific idea.” The concept was “thrown around quite a bit on line” he said but there was very little scientific basis for the glycerol pre-wash idea.

To sum up his work, Mallin created a poster entitled “Improving the Efficiency of Biodiesel Production Using the Glycerol Pre-Wash.” This same poster will be brought to Orlando to be on view during the poster fair at the conference.

Mallin sees the trip to not only be an honor but a career opportunity. Besides having something to add to his resume, Mallin thinks the conference might be a good place to network. He plans to go to graduate school and would like to stay at URI but also is applying to Northeastern.

As for his experience with the Energy fellows, he said it was a very rewarding experience.”It was a great cross-experience. I got to work with environmental, economics and business people. I love to work with people who are not engineers.”