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Sponge Converts Dirty Cooking Oil to Biodiesel

Scientists in Australia have developed an incredible sponge-like material that can convert discarded cooking oil and other waste materials into biodiesel, in a very cost effective manner, as published in the journal Nature Catalysis.

The sponge, which is being described as the first of its kind, is micron-sized and highly porous. When molecules are fed into the sponge, they undergo a chemical reaction in the large pores and then make their way into the smaller pores, where a second chemical reaction takes place.

These chemical reactions turn highly complex molecules into raw materials that can be used to create a whole range of materials, and all of these reactions happen within the sponge.

"Catalysts have previously been developed that can perform multiple simultaneous reactions, but these approaches offer little control over the chemistry and tend to be inefficient and unpredictable," says co-lead investigator Professor Karen Wilson of Australia’s RMIT. "Our bio-inspired approach looks to nature's catalysts - enzymes - to develop a powerful and precise way of performing multiple reactions in a set sequence. It's like having a nanoscale production line for chemical reactions - all housed in one, tiny and super-efficient catalyst particle.”

Typically, discarded cooking oil needs to be cleaned thoroughly in an energy-intensive process to rid it of its contaminants before it can be turned into biodiesel. Using the tiny sponge, scientists now have the ability to clean and convert cooking oil at a fraction of the price.

The efficiency of the technology could double the productivity of processes currently used to produce chemical precursors for a wide variety of products, such as medicines and packaging, from food waste, tires, and microplastics. Moving forward, the researchers are working to scale up the process for larger output, with an eye on commercialization.

"Our new catalysts can help us get the full value of resources that would ordinarily go to waste - from rancid used cooking oil to rice husks and vegetable peelings - to advance the circular economy," says co-lead investigator Professor Adam Lee. "And by radically boosting efficiency, they could help us significantly reduce environmental pollution from chemical manufacturing and bring us closer to the green chemistry revolution."

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