Biodiesel Study in the International Context Using Technology Prospecting

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Contributed by Clarissa A Biscainho, Diego Ss Aires, Sidney M C Chaves, Suzana Borschiver, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, School of Chemistry, Department of Chemical Engineering.

Concerns regarding the environment and growing necessity of technology to extract energy resources have been leading to a search for alternative energy resources, among which biofuels are the most studied nowadays. Biodiesel has been in the spotlight in the recent years.

Any vegetable oil extracted from oilseed can be used as a feedstock to biodiesel production (1). Recently, microorganisms have also been a topic of academic studies with the most diverse approaches, from the use of such microorganisms as lipid resources (2,3,4) to their genetic modification to produce biodiesel working as a biocatalyst (5). Some studies even suggest the use of animal fat wastes (AFWs) as feedstock in order to lower feedstock costs while simultaneously eschewing feedstock which might threaten food safety (6).Efforts have also been made to produce biodiesel using waste cooking oil.

Transesterification via basic homogeneous catalysis is the main industrial route for biodiesel production but today, different kinds of heterogeneous catalysts have been studied as a potential alternative to the previous method. Scientists have been searching for raw glycerin applications since raw byproduct generated during transesterification has a low value and its purification is sophisticated and expensive.(7) The aim of this work is to find the most relevant research and innovation concerning biodiesel all over the world and the perspectives about the future. An effective way to summarize these studies is by analyzing what the results indicate about the degree of maturity of the international biodiesel industry and how different regions of the globe are inserted in this scenario.

Biodiesel in International Scenario: Important players


Brazil was a starter on the biodiesel market. The potential for production is undeniable and government contributes with incentive measures and laws for mandatory mixtures of biodiesel and diesel. Despite high diversity of potential feedstock available in the country, soybean oil is still predominant, which is explained by Brazil’s position as one of the major soybean producers (8,9). However, future predictions indicate a potential change of scenery, wherein soybean reduces its participation in producing biodiesel and other feedstock, namely beef tallow, palm, castor bean and sunflower strengthen their roles as suppliers to the biofuel chain (9).

North America

The United States is well-known for its high oil consumption and, since most of the oil used in the country is imported, biodiesel has shown to be a good alternative in reducing dependence on Venezuelan and Middle Eastern oil. Likewise, it decreases dependence of national commodity producers on government subsidies. The main strategy used for stimulating the demand is incentives for biodiesel and diesel mixtures.

In Canada, the strategies to impel the biofuel consumption are almost the same as the U.S.’s, including the use of diesel and biodiesel mixtures in public transportations. Differently from the US, however, Canadian population is much smaller and the country has one of the largest oil reserves. Therefore, the motivations for the interest in biodiesel are not related to Energy Security but to environmental concern. (10)


In Europe, biodiesel industrial production has started in the early 1990s. In 1997, the major biodiesel producers in European Union joined together to create a non-profit organization known as European Biodiesel Board (EBB), aiming the stimulus to the use of biodiesel in the E.U. Since then, regulation for the use and production of biodiesel has been done by the establishment of specific legislation, especially in the countries that concentrate most biodiesel plants in E.U., namely Germany, Italy and Sweden.

In the E.U., the incentive to biodiesel use is part of the strategy to reduce the emissions as accorded in Kyoto agreement. Besides mandatory addition of biodiesel to conventional diesel, there are tax break policies and high taxes over oil derivatives (11).

Asia and Oceania 

In Malaysia and Indonesia palm oil global is the most important feedstock for biodiesel production. The know-how in oil seed cultivation has turned their biodiesel industry to become profitable. For both countries, biodiesel production from palm oil is also a strategy to deal with decrease in commodity’s price in the international market. In Malaysia, there are policies to guarantee the balance of palm oil for the biodiesel industry and for food supply (12).

In China, the big incentive to biodiesel programs is largely due to the increasing demand of energy in the recent years. Waste oil is one of the most important feedstock for biofuel production. Private companies and conglomerates are responsible for the major part of biodiesel production and many installed plants use cooking waste oil as feedstock (13).

In Taiwan, however, the conjuncture is a little bit different. Although policies for mandatory mixture of biodiesel to diesel were launched in 2008, the government announced, at the end of 2014, the discontinuity of such policies, due to some problems of biodiesel quality but mostly to concerns for lack of demand (14,15).


The tropical climate allows the growth of many vegetal species that can be used as biodiesel feedstock. Therefore, African countries are potential biodiesel producers. However, the development of biofuels industry depends on more than favorable natural environment. Structural social problems, lack of interest of local governments in creating policies to launch biodiesel industry and international expediency and speculation are some of the reasons that prevent the countries from having a strong biofuels industry (16,17).


Methodology – general aspects

For both applied and granted patents, first search was made in USPTO (18) using the keyword “biodiesel”, without year specification. The Boolean operator “AND” was chosen which consequently leads to search of patents containing the term “biodiesel” in both title and abstract.

Selection criteria

Patents historic evolution analysis suggests year publication as the first criteria for selection. Since biodiesel is a new and dynamic topic, the most recent research is the appropriate to give the to-come panorama of the sector. Therefore, both granted and applied patents were selected from 2012 to mid-2014, until achievement of a reasonable number of patents to a consistent analysis. Altogether, 80 patents were analyzed, from which 40 were granted and 40 applied.


The aim of macro analysis is to have a general view about the biodiesel panorama. The first step of the macro analysis is to obtain the historical evolution of the product to be studied. In this work, the historical evolution was represented by the number of all patents, both granted and applied published through the years, as shown in Graphic 1.

                                         Historical Evolution.jpg

Despite the interest over biodiesel has risen all over the world in 1990s, the number of patents before the 2000s is quite irrelevant. As expected, first researches over a new topic are done in academia, and very few lead to conclusive results that can be effectively applied in industrial processes. Graphic also shows a growing tendency in number of patents, which reinforces the idea that the issue is very dynamic and suggests that innovations with potential to be applied in industry are constantly being made.

Patents distribution by origin country

Knowledge of origin country is another important point in macro analysis. Biodiesel is a dynamic issue and the interest over it has been growing in different stages all over the world. Therefore, using all published patents to obtain the distribution could not reflect the current situation and mislead the analysis. For this reason, the distribution shown on Graphic 2 was done based only on the selected patents.

                                        distribution of patents.jpg

United States is the country with greater number of patents, with much higher percentage than any other country. Among all the analyzed patents, 55% were issued by the United States. The great stimulus given for patent’s deposit rather than for paper publication or for presenting research results in academic events figure out as reasonable explanations for high difference between number of patents’ publications of US and other countries.

However, the distribution of applied and granted patents separately shows some differences worthy to be mentioned, since these differences show some tendencies that cannot be perceived in the distribution based on all patents. For the granted patents analyzed, 70% were submitted by the USA, a much higher percentage than any other country. Brazil represents 5% of the granted patents.

Although USA remains in the leading position for the applied papers, with a percentage of 40%, there is great decrease in the difference between Brazil’s and USA’s percentage compared to granted patents. Brazil contributes with 15% of applied patents. Besides, although the contribution of Asian countries such as South Korea, India, Taiwan and Malaysia was not so expressive for granted patents, they represent each one, 7-8% of applied patents. Although the interest over biodiesel has grown more recently in these countries than in other parts of the globe, leading to the necessity of bench scale research, the change in their representativeness as origin countries of applied patents suggests that the technology is being developed with industrial purposes rather than being limited to academic interest.

Patents distribution by inventor

It is expected that companies submit most of the patents. Nowadays, many companies partner with universities, financing basic research, which is proving to be more profitable than opening its own research center. Sometimes, research purely done in academia does not have real application in industry. On the other hand, when companies are directly for funding research, such research will be aimed to industrial applications. As companies want to protect their intellectual property, innovation is usually submitted as patents. The data match the expectations: for granted patents, 54% were submitted by companies while 29% were submitted by universities or research centers and 17%, by natural person. For applied patents, the major part of inventors (45%) are natural persons whereas companies contribute for 35% of analyzed patents followed by universities and research centers with 20%.

Patents distribution by inventor companies’ profile

For patents, another interesting topic to be approached in macro analysis is inventor companies’ profile since it turns possible to see which industrial segments are interested in funding research over biodiesel. Energy companies submitted the 42% of analyzed issued patents. Not all of these companies already work directly with renewable energy. However, even companies in which feedstock is mostly based on oil are interested in funding biodiesel research. Engineering and technology companies also correspond to 29%, a high percentage, among analyzed patents. Since in the development of new technology, equipment and services play a very important role, it is totally understandable. Companies with diversified businesses, petrochemicals and specialty companies also appeared, with low representative percentage.


The aim of meso analysis is finding the most common topics discussed in the patents. For this purpose, six groups, named taxonomies were established, in which patents were classified according to their approach. One patent can fit more than one taxonomy; this is not so common, though, since patents tend to target an specific topic of study. Classification of a patent in such taxonomy is based on deep discussion of at least one issue mentioned in the classification criteria. Detailed glossary of issues handled in each taxonomy is shown on Table 1.

                 Meso taxonomies.jpg

Micro analysis is based on meso taxonomies detailing. Briefly, meso taxonomies are subdivided into specific topics that are usually approached with relatively frequency in patents. The three last meso taxonomies presented on Table 1 do not admit reasonable subdivisions as they already comprise all the topics. A glossary, made to clarify the points taken into account when classifying patents into micro taxonomies, is shown on Table 2.

                        micro taxonomies.jpg


For both granted and applied patents, the great part of them approach processes, followed by feedstock, product and catalyst. Very few patents discuss applications and byproducts. The optimization of processes not only reduces production costs but also leads to lower generation of byproduct, increases the yield and generates a better quality product, naturally reducing the necessity of onerous and sophisticated separation and purification techniques as well as efforts to find new applications for the byproduct. This explains the low number of patents referring specifically to byproduct as well as to product. The patents classified in the product taxonomy refer exclusively to the analysis of product quality and, although increase in product quality is an advantage achieved by the process improvement, it is not always approached directly in patents that refer to processes.

As can be seen from micro taxonomies distribution, the percentage of patents, either applied or granted, handling primary processes is much more representative than the ones in which secondary processes are approached, reinforcing that focusing on the primary processes has been proving to be more profitable. The low number of patents handling applications reveals that few efforts are being made in order to find new applications for the product and that, when it comes to innovation, product is not the main target. The presented distribution of taxonomies suggests characteristics of an industry in the maturity stage. In the early stages of an industry development, product innovation is very important. As maturity starts being achieved, however, innovation of product or radical innovation in the technology loses strength and major attention is given to optimization of processes (19).

Catalysts are also a great matter of discussion. Although homogeneous catalysts present some inconveniences, as previously mentioned, they are still the most common in industry. The great know how, technology and equipment already destined to their use as well as the higher prices of other classes of catalysts are still matters of resistance for changing. In fact, some granted patents focus on ways of reducing parallel reaction using homogeneous catalysts as an attempt to avoid changing catalysts. However, due to their strong disadvantages, which highly affect the costs of separation techniques and the product quality, most recent efforts in industry are being made to find alternative catalysts, reinforced by the lack of applied patents in the analyzed period referring to homogeneous catalysts. Even for granted patents, only 16% refer to homogeneous catalysts, a minor part of them.  Although at first sight the change in the catalysts seems to be a radical innovation, since it would represent a change in years of know-how, it can be understood as part of the attempt to increase the quality of the biodiesel and reduce the costs, consistent with strategies of an industry coming to its maturity stage.

Regarding feedstock, great part of patents approach secondary generation feedstock. The use of traditional feedstock is well-established and more attention is being given to taking advantage of rejects that were previously discarded. The use of second generation feedstock is also a strategy to reduce the costs. Besides being cheaper than virgin feedstock, it can also allow industry to reuse its own effluents, consequently reducing the costs with wastewater treatments, which can significantly impact in total costs. In the recent years, some academic works have raised the interest over the usage of microorganism derivative feedstock as well as their use in feedstock pretreatments. However, this approach was not observed in the analyzed patents, suggesting that research over this topic is still limited to academic interest. At first, the use of microorganisms can seem to be in the same position as the change of catalysts or the change from primary to secondary feedstock. The use of microorganisms is much more complex, though, and would definitely represent a radical change in the dominant technology.

In fact, the use of microorganisms just adds more steps to the process, namely the microorganism cultivation and lipid extraction, before the conversion into biodiesel. For being a totally new technology with more steps, at least in the beginning it would represent high increase in the costs and would demand time until the learning curve made it possible to reduce the costs. In fact, academic works relate that some of the successful techniques used for the extraction of lipids from algae, for example, are very onerous and efforts have been made in order to replace them but many of them were unsuccessful (4). Besides, although the use of microorganisms reduces many environmental and social problems caused by traditional crops, such as the demand for large cultivation areas  and competition in the food market, it does not necessarily eliminates the current technical and operational problems, since the extracted lipids still need to be converted into biodiesel.

Usually, radical changes occur in emergent industries, in which dominant technology is not stablished yet and news technologies are being experimented without strong concerns about costs. For an industry in the maturity stage, however, the search for new technology is done rationally and as part of a strategy that aims the reduction of costs. Other aspects of international scenarios previously mentioned in the introduction also sustain the degree of maturity on the industry. Taiwan’s decision to discontinue biodiesel’s mixture policies is a remarkable example. When an industry is achieving its maturity stage, signalized by increase in the international competition and insufficient demand, it is common to see players looking for alternative markets that seem more promisor (19).


Technology prospection turned it possible to have a sector panorama as well as tendencies for research in the next few years. In the analysis of this methodology, the comparison between applied and granted patents separately is very important since some aspects may be lost in the complete analysis. Besides, the differences also indicate changes in the research line and in the strategies adopted by countries. The most important contribution of this work, which summarizes the results presented in the data search, is the inference that many characteristics suggest that international biodiesel industry is achieving its maturity stage.

Nonetheless, as the work was based in the most recent patents from all over the globe and not restricted to a particular region, some peculiarities may have been taken for granted during the analysis, making it important to enlighten them. For the Asian countries, in which the interest over biodiesel has grown very recently, it is even more difficult to define whether the industry is achieving its maturity or not. Some characteristics of Asian biodiesel industry clearly match the ones of emergent industries whereas others fit well the classification of mature industries. For these reasons, it is reasonable to state that in these countries, biodiesel industry is in the beginning of a transition, less advanced than in other parts of the globe where the interest over biodiesel has started earlier.

The degree of maturity is not achieved at the same time in all the countries but the increasing interest in biodiesel all over the globe evidences that the international biodiesel industry is achieving its maturity as a hole, since the raise in the number of international players and consequently, of international competition, are signs of maturity and directly impact in companies’ profits and lead to changes in strategies to keep the competitiveness regarding their insertion in the global market.


To the Centre for Writers, from University of Alberta, for the free support to University of Alberta Alumni and all the dedication in carefully reviewing this manuscript.

This article was originally published on Chimica Oggi- Chemistry Today, a publication from Tekno Scienze Publisher:


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