The chemical composition of crude glycerol mainly varies with the type of catalyst used to produce biodiesel, the transesterification efficiency, recovery efficiency of the biodiesel, other impurities in the feedstock, and whether the methanol and catalysts were recovered. All of these considerations contribute to the composition of the crude glycerol fraction. For instance, Hansen et al. studied the chemical compositions of 11 crude glycerol collected from 7 Australian biodiesel producers and indicated that the glycerol content ranged between 38% and 96%, with some samples including more than 14% methanol and 29% ash.
Such variations would be expected with small conversion facilities. In most cases, biodiesel production involves the use of methanol and a homogeneous alkaline catalyst, such as sodium methoxide and potassium hydroxide. Accordingly, methanol, soap, catalysts, salts, non-glycerol organic matter, and water impurities usually are contained in the crude glycerol.
For example, crude glycerol from sunflower oil biodiesel production had the following composition (w/w): 30% glycerol, 50% methanol, 13% soap, 2% moisture, approximately 2-3% salts (primarily sodium and potassium), and 2-3% other impurities. Moreover, while the same feedstocks were employed, the crude glycerol from alkali- and lipase-catalyzed transesterifications contained different purities of glycerol. The salt content in crude glycerol, from biodiesel production via homogeneous alkaline catalysts, ranged from 5% to 7% which makes the conventional purification techniques more costly. Heterogeneous processes using enzymes and solid metal-oxide catalysts have been promoted as good alternatives to homogeneous alkaline catalysts in terms of improving the quality of crude glycerol.
However, even in heterogeneous transesterification processes, impurities existing in the natural raw feedstocks tend to accumulate in the glycerol phase. Therefore, purification of crude glycerol is required, in most cases, to remove impurities in order to meet the requirements of existing and emerging uses.