Pioneering Aston University research has shown the way forward for making renewable hydrogen and propane fuel gases from glycerol.

This organic compound is produced mainly from fats and oils and often used in health and beauty products.

With crude glycerol from biodiesel production plants cheap and abundant the researchers have explored its potential for making hydrogen gas and biopropane – pioneering work that could benefit the environment and reduce reliance on fuel imports.

The HYDROGAS project, supported by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, the European Union’s reference programme for doctoral education and postdoctoral training, has explored glycerol as a raw material to make hydrogen gas and biopropane.

Hydrogen is widely regarded as the most promising clean fuel of the future as it has no carbon emissions at the point of use, while biopropane can replace the already low-carbon fossil-derived liquefied petroleum gases. The fuels can also be used for heating remote off-grid buildings.

It has previously been shown that hydrogen can be reacted with glycerol to transform it into propane, but using external hydrogen can be expensive. However, HYDROGAS’s innovation was to use some of the glycerol itself to produce the hydrogen needed to transform glycerol into biopropane.

The study was led by Dr Jude Onwudili from Aston University’s Energy and Bioproducts Research Institute. He said, “Our approach was to use part of the glycerol itself, to produce the hydrogen gas required for biopropane production, avoiding the need for it to be added from expensive external sources.”

HYDROGAS’s first objective of developing a process to generate sufficient hydrogen to convert glycerol to biopropane was successfully met. Its second objective of obtaining high yields of biopropane, is still being investigated.

Dr Onwudili added, “We are also still working to obtain high biopropane yields from ‘crude glycerol’. Through HYDROGAS, we discovered that the second-stage reactions can work in different conditions to those that make the hydrogen, so will explore this alternative route.”

The research work has been supported by Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow, Dr Carine Tondo Alves.

Backed by further investments by Aston University, the project now aims to establish a dedicated research programme in the area of reforming and transformation of glycerol and other biomass-derived feedstocks to sustainable gaseous and liquid fuels.