Glycerin, a common biodiesel waste product, has become so abundant amid the rise in biofuel use that producers often have to pay to dispose of the chemical. Researchers at Rice University discovered that when combined, E. coli and glycerin produce succinate, a useful chemical that can be sold at a profit.
Since one pound of glycerin is created for every 10 pounds of biodiesel, this research has the potential to greatly increase the efficiency and profitability of the biofuel industry. Last year, 450 million gallons of biodiesel were produced in the United States alone.
Succinate and its derivatives have a huge market in the United States, over $1.3 billion, according to the USDA. The chemical can be used to flavor food and drinks, as an ingredient for dyes and perfumes, and for some medical applications. Formate, another product of the E. coli and glycerin combo, is used as a preservative for animal feed.
“Biodiesel producers used to sell their leftover glycerin, but the rapid increase in biodiesel production has left them paying to get rid of it,” said Ramon Gonzalez, one of the researchers who led the study. “Our goal goes beyond using this discovery for a single process. We want to use the technology as a platform for the green production of a whole range of high-value products.”
The technology has been sold to Houston-based Glycos Biotechnologies, which plans to open a demonstration facility within the next year.