Biodiesel, a renewable fuel of vegetal origin, has been an object of a rapidly growing interest, in the latest years, both as a pure fuel and as blending component to reduce exhaust pollutants of traditional diesel fuel. Biodiesel is conventionally produced through a well-established technology that involves the use of alkaline catalysts and is, therefore, not compatible with the presence of free fatty acids (FFAs) in the feedstock due to the formation of soaps. Also the presence of FFA in small amounts is detrimental, because, formed soaps strongly affect the successive glycerol separation giving place to a long settling time. Normally, highly refined vegetable oils are used as raw materials for biodiesel production. A preliminary stage of acidity reduction is necessary, when the starting material is characterized by a high free acidity (higher than 0.5% by weight). This pre-treatment can be pursued, as example, by means of an esterification reaction of the FFAs with methanol, catalyzed by sulphonic ionic exchange resins. In the present work, a batch reactor has been used for the study of the above-mentioned reaction and different acid ionic exchange resins have been tested as heterogeneous catalysts. Two kinds of substrates have been submitted for esterification with methanol: a model mixture of soybean oil artificially acidified with oleic acid and a commercial high-acidity mixture of waste fatty acids (oleins). A detailed kinetic model has been developed and tested in which the following key phenomena, characterizing the system, have been introduced: (i) the physical phase equilibrium (partitioning equilibrium) of the components between the resin-absorbed phase and the external liquid phase; (ii) the ionic exchange equilibria; (iii) an Eley-Rideal surface reaction mechanism. The developed kinetic model was able to correctly interpret all the experimental data collected, both as a function of the temperature and of the catalyst concentration. © 2010 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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