School of Chemistry & Physics

From left: Mr Jonathan Chetty, Clariant; Mr Aaron Folkard; CATSA 2019 eminent visiting Professor Angelos Efstathiou and CATSA Chairperson, Dr Stephen Roberts at the awards.

Award for Student Presentation on Catalysis of Biodiesel By-Products

Master’s candidate in the School of Chemistry and Physics, Mr Aaron Folkard received the Clariant award for the best student oral presentation at the Catalysis Society of South Africa’s (CATSA) 30th annual conference held in Cape Town. He was recognised for his presentation on the conversion of a biodiesel by-product to several more valuable chemicals using a catalyst.

The conference theme was From Nanomaterial to Industrial Process, and participants included delegates from academia and industry. The student awards recognise scientific papers of exceptional quality presented at the event through oral or poster presentations.

Folkard’s research is supervised by Professor Holger Friedrich. His presentation described how, by upgrading a biodiesel by-product, glycerol, he and other researchers were able to form their target chemical, propanol, as well as other valuable chemicals such as acrolein, acetol and propanediols, all of which are between four and 20 times more valuable than crude glycerol.

‘In order to convert glycerol, we used a proprietary bimetallic catalyst developed during my MSc in a continuous flow reactor at elevated pressure and temperature,’ said Folkard. The presentation highlighted the benefits and shortcomings of this catalyst system that would help develop better catalysts for biomass upgrading. Folkard also detailed how one component of the catalyst affects another.

‘Using advanced techniques within UKZN, as well as iTemba labs and the Central Analytical Facilities (CAF) at Stellenbosch University, we were able to show the properties of the catalyst not only before the reaction, but also after it,’ said Folkard.

Folkard’s masters research involves an investigation of the complete conversion of glycerol to propanol, work which could have significant applications in biorefineries and could be coupled with alternative energy and biofuel production. Having initially aimed to form platform chemicals like propanol in his MSc, Folkard says the wide product profile obtained during his study was an added bonus.

Folkard’s interest in catalysis was sparked during the course of his BSc in Applied Chemistry when he worked as a research assistant in Friedrich’s Catalysis Research Group (CRG) during vacations. He was exposed to both homogenous and heterogenous catalysis over subsequent vacations, leading him to pursue postgraduate studies with the CRG.

Folkard plans to continue to PhD studies, after which he foresees a career either in industry where he can apply the expertise he has gained, or as an entrepreneur launching a bioenergy start-up to make a difference in biomass upgrading.

‘I am passionate about climate change and disrupting established industries, and hopefully I can bring about change in both,’ he said.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied