New outlets for castor oil

May 2, 2017 Prof. Christophe Len, Department of Process Engineering, UTC was declared laureate of the Glycerine Innovation Award for a decade’s work on glycerol. The award ceremony was organized in Orlando, Florida at the annual congress of the American Oil Chemists' Society is a recognition of a career devoted to valorising this co-product of methyl esters (an additive for biodiesel fuels).

New outlets for castor oil

Biodiesel fuels at the pump in Europe contain 7 to 12% methyl esters obtained from castor and/or sunflower oils. Fort every 10 tonnes of additive produced, 1.2 tonne of a co-product, crude glycerol is also produced. Until now, this ‘useless’ residue (in this form) was burned. However, by refining crude glycerol at high temperature along with some chemical-induced transformations, it can be used in a wide range of industrial, pharmaceutical and agricultural applications. Prof. Len has been studying relevant novel processes, since 2008 at UTC, to transform this primary product waste into a high added-value molecule. With his PhD students and post-docs, he has uncovered a number of paths to make crude glycerol an inescapable green chemistry base. “We first of all succeeded the synthesis of glycerol carbonate, a biodegradable synthon that proved interesting for the production of bio-sourced pesticides that are efficient against vine pests. We then developed a series of reactions were the developed to create derivatives of the acrylic acid used by the plastics and pharmaceutical sectors to produce quinine derivatives to be deployed in the fight against malaria and also as foodstuff colouring agents”, sums up our specialist in organic chemistry.

An opening for a new chemical sector?


Prof. Len’s research also enabled an industrialization of process used hitherto but only on a laboratory scale. “When we started this research, we proceeded by batches whereas we developed a continuous industrial system to produce quinolone with maximum safety and productivity conditions”. The solutions developed here are promising and it now remains to convince actors in the petrochemical sector of the advantages of investing in bio-refineries. The market prices for petroleum products and also the decisions taken by EU authorities in regard to bio-fuels will determine to a large extent the deployment or not of such technologies on a large scale.