Biofuels enjoy nowadays increased public and scientific attention, driven by key factors such as volatile oil price, the need for increased energy security, and concerns over greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. However, in order to make biofuels a competitive alternative, the cost of production has to be significantly reduced by using enhanced process technologies. Distillation is heavily involved in the production processes of biofuels—taking the blame for the high energy requirements that have a negative impact on the operating costs. Dividing-wall column (DWC) is one of the best examples of proven industrial process intensification technology in distillation, as it allows significantly lower investment and operating costs while also reducing the number of equipment units and the carbon footprint.
This work presents an overview of novel applications using the DWC technology in the production of the most important biofuels, by employing multi-component separations, azeotropic, extractive or reactive distillation in a DWC: enhanced methanol recovery and glycerol separation in biodiesel production, synthesis of fatty acid methyl esters and dimethyl ether (DME) by reactive distillation, integrated DME purification and methanol or CO2 recovery in the dimethyl ether process, as well as bioethanol concentration and dehydration. The industrially relevant case studies presented here show that significant energy savings are possible (ranging from ∼20 to 60%) while simplifying the processes by using less equipment that requires a lower plant footprint. Remarkably, in most cases there is also the possibility of revamping existing plants producing biofuels, and thus reusing the already available equipment. © 2013 Society of Chemical Industry