TEES researchers develop cheaper, more efficient method of producing vegetable oil

November 1, 2002
| By: Aubrey Bloom

COLLEGE STATION -- A little fatty acid with your french fries? How about some soap on your onion rings? It's not what people usually think about at the drive-through window, but the vegetable oil used to cook some of our favorite foods doesn't start out that tasty. Unless purified, vegetable oils contain fatty acids and other impurities that give them an "off" flavor and undesirable color. To make the oil edible, it is refined through a complex process requiring chemical treatment and expensive equipment. The Texas Engineering Experiment Station's (TEES) Dr. Ernesto Hernandez and Steve Rathbone have developed a new, simplified method that improves the efficiency and the end product of vegetable oil refining. In refining vegetable oils, fatty acids are neutralized by adding a chemical that will bind them into a thick substance resembling soap, or soapstock, that can then be more easily removed. Current methods use sodium hydroxide, and centrifuges - machines that can separate the components of a substance by spinning it at high speeds - to remove the soap. But using centrifuges is expensive and less efficient. The new process uses sodium silicate instead of sodium hydroxide as the binding agent. Sodium silicate also acts as an absorbent for the "soapstock," allowing it to be removed by filtration, a much more efficient and less costly option to centrifugation. "Basically, it simplifies the process by making it more efficient and by decreasing losses of oil," said Hernandez, head of the fats and oils research program at the TEES Food Protein Research and Development Center. That adds up to savings in manufacturing and overhead while producing oil that is purer and of higher quality. Health benefits may also result from the use of sodium silicate because it is less harsh than sodium hydroxide, which can damage the oil during processing. Hernandez is working on further refining the process and exploring additional uses. Originally developed for processing edible vegetable oils, the innovation has been found to have applications for refining a variety of oils from soybean oil to petroleum products. Hernandez said the new filtration process can replace conventional centrifuge process for new companies. "I see it as having excellent potential for new companies as a standard procedure," said Hernandez. The A&M System Technology Licensing Office is currently seeking an industrial partner to facilitate commercial application of this innovation. "We are very excited about the patent," said Hernandez. "A couple of companies have tried the process with good success. I think any licensee would have excellent success." For more information: TEES Food Protein Research and Development Center -- http://www.tamu.edu/food-protein U.S. Patent 6,448,423, Hernandez, et al., "Refining of glyceride oils by treatment with silicate solutions and filtration," was issued to The Texas A&M University System on Sept. 10, 2002. By: Amy Brundeen Technology Licensing Office 10/28/02 NR 1106

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