Galen Suppes develops a way to make a useful material from a biodiesel byproduct

By Joy LePree

Galen Suppes, MU researcher

Galen Suppes, a chemical engineering professor and chief science officer of the University of Missouri-Columbia’s department of renewable alternatives, has developed a process for converting glycerin, a byproduct of the biodiesel production process, into propylene glycol. His discovery not only benefits biodiesel producers but also helps protect the environment. His propylene glycol, which is made from soybean and other oils, can be used as a non-toxic base material for automobile antifreeze. Ethylene glycol, which is toxic, is currently used in most vehicular antifreeze formulations. “Most of our vehicles contain this toxic chemical that if it spills or leaks…really does poison the environment,” explains Suppes. “But this version of propylene glycol should cost less to produce, is made from indigenous product and is non-toxic.” Other possible applications for the propylene glycol include aircraft de-icing and consumer care products. Suppes began investigating the prospect of converting glycerin to propylene glycol about three years ago. He has been on the university scene, however, for 14 years. Prior to his academic career, he worked in industry for a few years after obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University.

Q: What’s the process you developed to convert glycerol to propylene glycol?

A: To convert glycerol to propylene glycol, you need to create a reaction by adding a diatomic hydrogen molecule and removing a water molecule. When you start, you basically have three alcohol groups on the glycerol and you undergo a reaction that converts it into a molecule with two. The molecule having two alcohol groups on it is known as propylene glycol, which is an accepted, approved product for a variety of applications. This process works at a lower pressure and temperature and creates a higher yield than other methods of conversion.

Q: How does your new process benefit biodiesel manufacturers?

A: Right now the market demand for glycerol in the U.S. is about 600 million pounds. In about two years the excess, new glycerol being produced from biodiesel plants, will be about 1 billion pounds. So, these biodiesel plants are producing a lot of unwanted glycerol as a byproduct. A lot of them handle the material as a waste or as a very low-value material for feed or such. But by converting it to propylene glycol, it becomes a larger and faster growing market with a higher value. This could help make biodiesel production more profitable. There’s about one pound of glycerol produced for every nine pounds of biodiesel in a biodiesel plant. So, it occurs in less volume at the plant than biodiesel, but this is still a significant amount. The impact of turning it into propylene glycol on biodiesel manufacturing would be about 40 cents a gallon for biodiesel. That’s not saying biodiesel will be 40 cents cheaper. It just might make the biodiesel plant profitable. It’s 40 cents per gallon toward profitability.

Q: Why is this new version of propylene glycol better than existing propylene glycol on the market?

A: The current propylene glycol on the market is petroleum-based and is made from imported petroleum. This product is made from indigenous soybean and other oils.

Q: Will consumers accept antifreeze made with this new propylene glycol?

A: There are already propylene glycol antifreeze products sitting on the shelf next to the ethylene glycol-based products, all of them approved and ready to use. The products containing propylene glycol are a little more expensive, so not as much of it sold. But our process should bring that price down and make it the predominant product.

Q: How will you get this version of propylene glycol on the market?

A: I can’t give out too many details, but I can say we have licensed the technology to a company called Synergy Chemicals Ltd. We expect the first commercial facility to be in production in Atlanta by the end of this summer.

What advice do you have for chemical engineers wanting to make a transition to academia?

My ultimate goal from the start of my career was to go into academia and become a professor. With that in mind, I can say that in the university setting you have to want it badly. You have to deal with the tenure process and want to go after the research funding. The academic environment is really more of an individual thing — sort of what you can do on your own as opposed to the team environment you have in industry. So you have to really want to do it in order to succeed.

Joy LePree is a contributing writer for CHEM.INFO. She has worked as a journalist for 13 years, covering a variety of issues and trends involving chemicals, processing, engineering and maintenance.kl i