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Where’s the beef? Check your paint can
by Bev Betkowski
Kelly Maher, who is working towards her master of science degree in the U of A Faculty of Agriculture, Forestry and Home Economics, is exploring the possibilities of converting beef tallow - fat - into a liquid similar to those produced using petroleum or fossil fuels. The end product could be used in everyday products like solvents, paint and lacquer.
Traditionally, tallow was a valued product of the rendering industry, but the recent BSE scare resulted in a significant drop in value, from $374 per tonne in 2002 to $242 per tonne in 2003, according to Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. This undervalued byproduct of the rendering process, which sees almost every other part of an animal's carcass used, would fill an emerging demand from chemical supply companies for biodegradable products, Maher said.
"We live in a fossil-fuel world and there are numerous problems associated with our extensive use of petroleum," Maher said. "There is uncertainty over oil prices, growing environmental concern over fossil fuel combustion and most importantly, our reserves are depleting and will eventually run out. Tallow is a renewable resource that could be sustainable over a long period of time."
Tallow is a good candidate for conversion to fuel. Animal fat and vegetable oils have been identified as emerging sources of energy because of they burn at high temperatures. In fact, this group of fuels, composed of triglycerides, was displaced in the early 1900s by petroleum, which was seen as the more economical way to produce fuel and chemicals.
"Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, proved a long time ago that vegetable oils could be used to run engines," Maher said.
Research has already brought more environmentally friendly, vegetable-based discoveries to market, such as gasoline blended with ethanol produced from corn fermentation. Maher, like many researchers working in renewable technology, eventually hopes to see total replacement of petroleum, even though that is still many years away: "For now we are happy with introducing some of these products into the market as blends or additives."
That said, Maher believes the technology will eventually catch on. "There are many processes in renewable energy that are commercialized or nearing commercialization, especially in Europe. It's just a matter of how long it will take to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels. Unfavorable economics is the main reason we don't see more of these products in the market - yet."
Using pyrolysis (a high-temperature reaction and conversion process), Maher is using different fatty acids to test the reactions of tallow. This allows her to compare the properties of the final product to conventional chemicals already in use. Though there are different ways of converting byproducts like tallow to useful chemicals, pyrolysis is similar to technology currently used in the petroleum refining and heavy oil upgrading industries.
"The technology is already known, so what we aim to do is use a different feedstock," Maher said. If successful, Maher's work will also pave the way for using other agricultural oils, such as canola, in chemicals.
Her research, being conducted under the supervision of Dr. David Bressler, a professor of agriculture, food and nutritional science at the U of A, will also help develop Alberta expertise in the biomaterials, bioenergy and bioprocessing sector, one of the most significant future research growth areas in North America.
Tallow is not recovered in large enough quantities to replace all petroleum-based fuels and chemicals in the province. "However, there is the potential to produce higher-value solvents and other petroleum replacements for specific applications that value renewability, biodegradability and sustainability," Bressler said.
Maher, a graduate of Salisbury Composite High School in Sherwood Park, graduated from the U of A's engineering co-op program in 2003, before working with Bressler at Alberta Agriculture for eight months. She is now in her second year of a master's degree program at the U of A, and sees her work as an exciting crossover between the faculties of engineering and agriculture.
"It is interesting to apply engineering principles to something other than oil and gas and to be exposed to different industries," she said.
"Students such as Kelly are rapidly bringing Alberta to the forefront of the new and evolving bio-industrial economy," Bressler added.
This article originally appeared in ExpressNews.
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