The Problem with Moisture Analysis in Biofuels – a New Solution?

September 15, 2021 |

By Dr. Stephany McClements, Vice President of Business Development, Lantha Sensors

Special to The Digest

We know that the world is adapting to the effects of climate change, and biofuels are reaching a pivotal role in making those changes less impactful for future generations. However, problems in the industry still pose daunting challenges. One in particular is that biofuels have a higher affinity towards moisture and they have a higher water capacity. As such, biodiesel can absorb up to 6.5 times more moisture from the air than fossil fuel-based diesel. This water incorporation can happen anywhere along the supply chain from production to storage, and at any time in transit. Such water accumulation provides optimal conditions for microbial growth which quickly corrodes storage tanks. Excess moisture in fuel will also severely damage fuel-injection equipment, which puts vehicle operators at risk and is expensive to repair. Water removal methods are not effective, and water saturated fuel usually must be reprocessed, at manufacturers’ cost. Such issues are not only expensive to resolve, but they can potentially delay supply chains, harm personnel, and ruin corporate reputations much faster than they took to build. The only way to prevent such consequences is by increased moisture analysis testing in biofuels to ensure any problems are caught and solved early on, before they cause real damage. The biofuels industry needs a chemical analysis method that provides accurate, speedy results, and frankly, traditional methods aren’t cutting it anymore.

The Lagging Legacy

Karl Fischer titration is the most common solution for moisture analysis; however, this process is complex, time consuming, and not optimized for user return on investment. With this technique, samples must be sent or outsourced to a central lab, which is both costly and creates hours of employee down time, as they wait for analysis results before taking further action with a batch of biofuel. Analysis time can range from 30 minutes to 2 hours; that waiting time quickly adds up when you’re doing dozens to hundreds of tests on a daily basis. Time and capital costs aside, Karl Fischer titration uses a series of hazardous solvents and reagents, which create toxic waste streams that must be safely disposed of, and inevitably increase the hazardous waste footprint for companies.

Thermo-gravimetric analysis is another moisture analysis solution; however, during this process volatile compounds can evaporate alongside the moisture which causes unexpected mass loss and provides inaccurate analysis results. Gas chromatography can also be used for moisture analysis, but the carrier gases required in the procedure are costly, have a short shelf life, and can be difficult to obtain. These solutions incur many of the same limitations as Karl Fischer titration: high operating costs, time inefficiency, and inability to perform testing in the field. They are not user friendly or optimized for multi-point testing or on-the-fly quality analysis.

Lanthanides to the Rescue

A relatively new discovery has led to a complete upheaval of the chemical analysis industry. This new technology is based on chemical materials called Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs) which contain a group of rare earth elements called lanthanides. The combination of these, introduced with completely new data readers, offer outstanding benefits over Karl Fischer Methods while keeping the analytical integrity and accuracy of the tests. The science is complex, but a simple view is that researchers at the University of Texas found that lanthanides’ had unique light-emitting (photoluminescent) properties that could be “tuned” to serve as chemical sensors. By combining two or more metals in a single material, stark color changes are generated when a particular impurity or analyte comes into contact with the lanthanide metal centers. Some color changes are noticeable to the naked eye enabling qualitative assessment, but in general terms, a reader is necessary to accurately achieve quantitative results. This type of solid-state sensors can also be tuned to target analytes by strategically modifying the type of lanthanides and the composition of these metals within the sensor.

Leveraging New Science

All the new science is interesting, even exciting, but what does it mean to the industry?  Quite simply put, it means major changes in the chemical analysis and testing capability for moisture – both from an ROI perspective and overall safety. Instead of having to rely on a central lab for analysis, employees can finally conduct moisture analysis in the field, after a quick five minutes of training. All they need to do is dip the MOF-containing test strips in a fuel sample and then place the strip in a reader device. The device, integrated with specialized software, will send results directly to a PC or smartphone in minutes. These new solutions provide users with results 20 times faster than with Karl Fischer titration, improving employee efficiency and eliminating hazardous waste stream sources – all at a fraction of the cost of legacy technologies! Testing equipment so portable that it can fit in the palm of your hand.

The switch from fossil fuels to biofuels is analogous to the switch from outdated legacy chemical analysis methods to a cleaner and more efficient solution. Chemical analysis platforms are evolving and becoming more capital and environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional methods, and everyone is winning from better science.

At Lantha, we provide customers with efficient, accurate chemical analysis at just a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. Our solution is optimized for ease of use and user return on investment. We understand the complexity of Karl Fischer titration, and we are here to improve your moisture analysis experience. Reach out to Lantha Sensors for more information.

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