An illustration of a painter pouring oil into a paint roller pan

How Cooking Oil Could Be Used to Paint Your House

In Chemical Engineering Professor Mike Timko’s lab, things aren’t always what they seem. Bamboo plants, sewage sludge, and yard and food waste are not only reused, they’re made into something else entirely: fuel to power cars, trucks, and generators, and energy to heat homes.

Now Timko and other researchers have discovered a new method to turn used cooking oil into chemicals that could be made into paint or, potentially, plastic products. The discovery could help lessen reliance on petroleum and find a renewable alternative.

The innovation comes from the use of ZSM-5, a different type of catalyst than had been used in past research. The WPI team started with palmitic acid, a saturated fat common in cooking oils such as olive, soybean, sunflower, and palm oils; in other natural products such as dairy and meat; and in many skincare products.

The researchers then added the catalyst and a small amount of water to the mixture. “When you combine nano-scale catalysts and water,” says Timko, “you get a sweet spot where you have a more rapid conversion and selectivity for these chemicals.”

They turned up the heat—bringing the mixture to 400 degrees Celsius—and used a pressure cooker to keep the water from escaping the mixture by turning it into steam. “The pressure cooker doesn’t let steam out,” says Timko, “it just keeps building up pressure. When you do that, the properties of water change.”

The interaction between the catalyst and the pressurized water promotes formation of industrial chemicals, known as one-ring aromatics. Other components, such as pigments, are then added to the mixture to make the paint. The next steps include evaluating the technology in a continuous process and incorporating oil that’s been used in the cooking process, rather than using a model compound.

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Syracuse University, Zoex Corporation, and the University of Bath (United Kingdom) contributed to the study, which was partially funded by a National Science Foundation grant to Syracuse University.

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