In this study, the reactive separation system has been designed and operated for fuel bioadditive ethyl levulinate synthesis from ethanol and levulinic acid by using a catalytic composite membrane. The catalytic composite membrane was prepared by coating hydroxyethyl cellulose membrane with a thin layer of sulfated zirconia. The membranes were characterized and the stability of the catalytic composite membrane was confirmed by consecutive experiments. Batch reactor experiments were carried out by using powder sulfated zirconia catalyst. While the levulinic acid conversion was 34.92% in 7 h by using the powder sulfated zirconia catalyst in the batch reactor, the conversion reached to a level of 95% in 7 h by using sulfated zirconia coated hydroxyethyl cellulose catalytic membrane under the same conditions (reaction temperature 70 degrees C, catalyst concentration 8 g/L and initial molar ratio 3:1) in the pervaporation catalytic membrane reactor (PVCMR). Results showed that the conversion in the PVCMR was much higher than those in the batch reactors. The effects of temperature, catalyst concentration and initial molar ratio of ethanol to levulinic acid on the conversion value of levulinic acid were investigated for both batch reactor and the pervaporation catalytic membrane reactor. (C) 2016 Institution of Chemical Engineers. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.