Esterification: Fatty acid esters, natural detergent alcohols and biodiesel

Fatty acid esters are generally small volume products in the industry, except when used for biodiesel.


Fatty acids can be produced by hydrolysis of the fats or oils (triglycerides) or the fractional distillation of tall oil. The hydrolysis can be carried out with sulphuric acid at low temperature or in the presence of a catalyst. Glycerin is obtained as a by-product. These fatty acids can be further refined by fractional distillation. The ester is then formed over a solid catalyst. The chain length of the acid depends very much on the origin of the oil and fat. The majority of the fatty acids are generated from tallow, palm kernel, tall oil, soya oil and sunflower oil. Consumers of fatty acids and esters are food stuff, cosmetics, soap and other personal care products, synthetic lubricants, paper, water treatment, as metal working fluids and in oil field applications. The markest for fatty acids generally have paralleled GDP growth rates.


Fatty acids are generally biodegradable and most are nontoxic chemicals with very low skin and eye irritation. They are usually considered safe for humans and the environment.


Besides the markets mentioned above, by far the biggest consumer of fatty acids is biodiesel. In this process oils from plants and tallow (tri-glycerides) are contacted with methanol under alkaline conditions to form the fatty acid methyl ester (FAME). Several million tons of FAME are produced globally with the majority being consumed in Europe and the USA as blends into the diesel. Mandates in many  countries require blends of up to 10%  biodiesel into diesel (B10). In some cases biodiesel is used as is (B100), in particular by large truck companies.



Typical reactions

  • Fatty acid ester through direct esterification (biodiesel)






  • Butanediol (BDO)
    Almost half of 1,4-BDO is converted into tetrahydrofuran and is subsequently used in the production of Spandex.
    The rest is used as a solvent, in the manufacture of plastics, fibres, polyurethanes and in organic chemistry to produce Γ-botyrolactone.

  • Natural detergent alcohol






CHEMRA is offering TREVER®|LITE polymers for the purification of biodiesel (Na/K and glycerides removal), and various polymeric TREVER®|LYST catalysts for the direct esterification of fatty acids.


Recommended esterification catalysts:



* For more information about these new esterification catalysts, please contact your Chemra sales representative.



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