Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Legacy Department

Chemical Engineering


Goodwin, James G.

Committee Member

Bruce , David A.

Committee Member

Rice , Richard W.

Committee Member

Creager , Stephen


Biodiesel synthesis from biomass provides a means for utilizing effectively renewable resources, a way to convert waste vegetable oils and animal fats to a useful product, a way to recycle carbon dioxide for a combustion fuel, and production of a fuel that is biodegradable, non-toxic, and has a lower emission profile than petroleum-diesel. Free fatty acid (FFA) esterification and triglyceride (TG) transesterification with low molecular weight alcohols constitute the synthetic routes to prepare biodiesel from lipid feedstocks. This project was aimed at developing a better understanding of important fundamental issues involved in heterogeneous catalyzed biodiesel forming reactions using mainly model compounds, representing part of on-going efforts to build up a rational base for assay, design, and performance optimization of solid acids/bases in biodiesel synthesis.
As FFA esterification proceeds, water is continuously formed as a byproduct and affects reaction rates in a negative manner. Using sulfuric acid (as a catalyst) and acetic acid (as a model compound for FFA), the impact of increasing concentrations of water on acid catalysis was investigated. The order of the water effect on reaction rate was determined to be -0.83. Sulfuric acid lost up to 90% activity as the amount of water present increased. The nature of the negative effect of water on esterification was found to go beyond the scope of reverse hydrolysis and was associated with the diminished acid strength of sulfuric acid as a result of the preferential solvation by water molecules of its catalytic protons. The results indicate that as esterification progresses and byproduct water is produced, deactivation of a Brønsted acid catalyst like H2SO4 occurs.
Using a solid composite acid (SAC-13) as an example of heterogeneous catalysts and sulfuric acid as a homogeneous reference, similar reaction inhibition by water was demonstrated for homogeneous and heteroge 0neous catalysis. This similarity together with other comparisons between the catalytic behaviors of liquid and solid acids suggests a common mode of operation of their Brønsted acid sites in carrying out esterification of a carboxylic acid with alcohol. The hypothesized Eley-Rideal type heterogeneous reaction mechanism involving a nucleophilic attack between adsorbed carboxylic acid and unadsorbed alcohol as the rate-limiting step was found to fit well the experimental observations and successfully predict the esterification rate obtained with SAC-13 as reaction progresses. The SAC-13 catalysis assay was also extended to carboxylic acids of higher molecular weights. A set of carboxylic acids with various alkyl chain lengths was used to investigate the structural effect of reacting carboxylic acids on heterogeneous catalyzed esterification. It was found that the reactivity of carboxylic acids was controlled by steric factors as the alkyl chain linearly lengthened. Despite their increased hydrophobicity, large carboxylic acids hardly impacted the deactivating effect of water on Brønsted acid sites. However, catalyst reusability and regeneration showed significant dependency on the size of the carboxylic acid used. With the use of larger reacting carboxylic acids, SAC-13 underwent more significant activity loss in consecutive reaction cycles due to stronger adsorption of the larger organics in the polymeric domains of the Nafion resin.
In parallel to the research activity on acid catalyzed esterification, the use of strong solid bases with organic functionality (quarternary ammonium, QN+) was investigated from a fundamental perspective. Using triacetin as a model compound for TG molecules, the effectiveness of this Brønsted base functionality in transesterification was demonstrated even at mild reaction conditions. But its catalytic behavior including catalyst selectivity and deactivation was significantly affected by the nature of the adopted support. A purposive design of the immobilizing matrix is expected to optimize the activity, selectivity, and stability of the QN+ groups, thus enhancing their applicability in practical biodiesel synthesis from lipid feedstocks. As the solid organic base-matrix composite catalyst remains to be better designed to fit the need of TG methanolysis, inorganic solid bases composed of metal oxides appear to be a more feasible choice given that their thermal robustness generally allows the achievement of sufficient activity by increasing reaction temperature and potentially permits a convenient regeneration by recalcination. A study dealing with the methanolysis of real lipid feedstock (poultry fat) was carried out using Mg-Al hydrotalcite derived catalysts. From a practical standpoint, the impact of a variety of operational variables on reaction, such as catalyst pretreatments, temperature, reactants molar ratio, and usage of co-solvent were addressed. As a result, biodiesel synthesis from poultry fat was successfully conducted by appropriately adjusting these variables. However, many underlying aspects associated with catalyst performance remain unexamined and unexplained.