Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name



Chemical Engineering and Materials Science

First Advisor

Simon Ng


Increase in the petroleum prices, projected increases in the world’s energy demand and environmental awareness have shifted the research interest to the alternative fuel technologies. In particular, green diesel, vegetable oil/animal fat/waste oil and grease derived hydrocarbons in diesel boiling range, has become an attractive alternative to biodiesel— a mixture of fatty acid methyl esters, particularly due to its superior fuel properties that are similar to petroleum diesel. Hence, green diesel can be used as a drop-in fuel in the current diesel engines. The current technology for production of green diesel– hydrodeoxygenation of triglycerides and fatty acids over conventional hydrotreating catalysts suffers from fast catalyst deactivation in the absence of hydrogen combined with high temperatures and high fatty acid content in the feedstock. Additionally, excess hydrogen requirement for hydrodeoxygenation technique leads to high production costs. This thesis proposes a new technology- selective decarboxylation of brown grease, which is a mixture of fats and oils collected from waste water trap and rich in fatty acids, over a supported noble metal catalyst that overcomes the green diesel production challenges. In contrast to other feedstocks used for liquid biofuel production, brown grease is inexpensive and non– food competing feedstock, therefore the process finds solution to waste management issues, reduces the renewable fuel production cost and does not add to the global food shortage problems. Special catalyst formulations were developed to have a high activity and stability in the absence of hydrogen in the fatty acid decarboxylation process. The study shows how catalyst innovations can lead to a new technology that overcomes the process challenges.

First, the effect of reaction parameters on the activity and the selectivity of brown grease decarboxylation with minimum hydrogen consumption over an activated carbon supported palladium catalyst were investigated. A 90% conversion of brown grease in a semi-batch mode was obtained in 7 hours. In contrast, in a batch reaction the conversion was roughly 40% in the same reaction time. However, by pre-treating the “as received” brown grease with H2, the conversion in a batch reactor was increased 1.4–fold; and when the H2 to BG ratio was increased to 3/1 (mol/mol), the conversion was further improved. Therefore, such a two–step processing with selective hydrogenation prior to the decarboxylation of BG improves the product selectivity. The commercial 5% Pd/C catalyst was highly active for the decarboxylation of brown grease to green diesel at 300 °C and 1.5 MPa.

Second, a class of Pd catalyst supported on a silica–activated carbon nanocomposite for free fatty acid decarboxylation was developed, and displayed excellent activity and operation stability selectively for the green diesel hydrocarbons formation in the absence of hydrogen under mild reaction conditions. The decarboxylation activities of different amount of silica containing catalysts were investigated in a batch reactor under inert gas. Among them, the formulation with the fewer oxygen surface groups (Pd/Si–C–4) was the most active catalyst for the decarboxylation of an unsaturated fatty acid. The high activity of the Pd/Si–C–4 catalyst is attributed to its accessible and well-distributed metallic Pd nanoparticles inside hybrid mesopores as well as to its low acidity, weak surface interactions and inertness. Thus, Pd supported on carbon modified with silica may be regarded as a prospective decarboxylation catalyst for the removal of oxygen from vegetable oil/animal fat without the need of additional hydrogen.

Third, in order to design a suitable catalyst for conversion of brown grease to green diesel, a systematic study of the model compounds– oleic acid was conducted on various catalysts in super-critical water to understand the reaction pathways in the absence of hydrogen. A Si–C support was more effective than activated carbon itself for both decarboxylation of oleic acid and hydrogenation of alkenes. In an additional effort to reduce Pd amount in the catalyst, Pd2Co/C catalysts with various Pd content were prepared and the catalytic activity study showed that 0.5 wt% Pd2Co/C catalyst performs even better than a 5 wt% Pd/C catalyst. Pd and Co alloys were very well dispersed and formed fine clusters, which led to a higher active metal surface area and hence favored the decarboxylation of oleic acid. This study showed that an alloy of Pd on carbon with a significantly low Pd content is much more active and selective to diesel hydrocarbons production from an unsaturated fatty acid in super-critical water and may be regarded as a prospective feasible decarboxylation catalyst for the removal of oxygen from vegetable oil/animal fat without the need of additional hydrogen.