Soon, scientists to produce plastic that grows on trees

May 20th, 2009 - 12:13 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, May 20 (ANI): Soon, scientists are literally going to produce plastic that grows on trees, starting from a one-stop process that derives raw material for fuels and plastic from plants rather than crude oil.

In a new research, chemists have successfully converted cellulose, which is the most common plant carbohydrate, directly into the building block called HMF in one step.

The result builds upon earlier work by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. In that work, scientists produced HMF from simple sugars derived from cellulose.

In this new work, researchers developed a way to bypass the sugar-forming step and go straight from cellulose to HMF.

This simple process generates a high yield of HMF and allows the use of raw cellulose as feed material.

“In biomass like wood, corn stover and switchgrass, cellulose is the most abundant polymer that researchers are trying to convert to biofuels and plastics,” said chemist Z. Conrad Zhang, who led the work while at PNNL’s Institute for Interfacial Catalysis.

HMF, also known as 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, can be used as a building block for plastics and “biofuels” such as gasoline and diesel, essentially the same fuels processed from crude oil.

The chemical, a metal chloride known as chromium chloride, converted sugar into highly pure HMF.

But, to be able to feed cellulosic biomass directly from nature, the team still needed to break down cellulose into simple sugars.

Zhang and colleagues wanted to learn how to skip that step.

After trying different metal chloride catalysts in the ionic solvent, the team found a pair of catalysts that worked well: A combination of copper chloride and chromium chloride under 120 degrees Celsius broke down the cellulose without creating a lot of unwanted byproducts.

In additional experiments, the team tested how well their method compared to acid, a common way to break down cellulose.

The metal chlorides-ionic liquid system worked ten times faster than the acid and at much lower temperatures.

Optimizing their method, the team found that they could consistently achieve a high yield of HMF.

The method converted about 57 percent of the sugar content in the cellulose feedstock to HMF through this single step process.

The team recovered more than 90 percent of the HMF formed, and the final product from the process was 96 percent pure.

According to PNNL geochemist and study coauthor Jim Amonette, “By combining the cellulose-breakdown and sugar-conversion steps, we are very close to a single-step method of converting raw biomass into a new platform chemical - a chemical you can readily turn into a transportation fuel or for synthesis of plastics and other useful materials.” (ANI)

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