Just One Word: Fructose
Plastic could be made from a common form of sugar instead of petroleum if the industry adopts a new process developed by scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
With concern growing over America's reliance on finite resources such as oil, there's mounting pressure to develop renewable sources for traditionally oil-based chemicals and commodities. Researchers have been looking at various plant materials as possible alternatives. But the challenge is to find a process that is also economically competitive with petroleum-based options.
"That's going to be the path forward, using alternative sources for these polymers," said Brent Shanks, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State University, who did not participate in the research. "But only if they can be produced more cheaply."
The Wisconsin researchers have taken a step in that direction. They discovered a more efficient way to manipulate fructose, creating a chemical that can produce common polymers found in many plastic items including food containers and synthetic fibers such as Mylar.
Making plastic is a multi-step process requiring the production and use of a stew of different intermediate chemicals. One of the most common in the petrochemical industry is terephthalic acid, which is derived from petroleum and is a starting compound for many plastics.
Researchers have known for years that some of these oil-based plastic intermediates could be replaced by compounds derived from plant materials. HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural), for example, can be produced using plant carbohydrates and could be used to replace terphthalic acid. The trouble has always being making the conversion cost-effective.
In the new research, which will be published in the , the Wisconsin scientists came up with a more streamlined and Earth-friendly way of mixing chemicals to make HMF from fructose. Once the HMF has been produced, it can be easily converted into a chemical called furan dicarboxylic acid, or FDCA. This can replace terephthalic acid, said , who led the research.
Initially, producing plastics this way might require some investment, but the long-term gain would be that the process is much cleaner than petroleum-based methods. While using petroleum dumps new carbon dioxide into the air, the carbon dioxide released when extracting chemicals from plants is created from molecules that are already in the ecosystem. As long as the biomass of plants remains relatively stable around the world, the balance of carbon dioxide naturally occurring in the atmosphere should remain, and global warming should not be significantly affected.
The up-front costs for this new process are less important than those that have contributed to the slow introduction of alternative fuels such as ethanol, Dumesic said.
"The energy costs are less important when you make a valuable, recyclable material (such as a polyester) from biomass in contrast to making a fuel, because the recyclable material has a long-term life, whereas a fuel is burned only one time," he said in an e-mail.
The research is an important step, Shanks said, because creating more sustainable plastics requires new ways of creating plastic precursors from renewable sources.
"Prof. Dumesic has shown there are ways to improve the process by using non-routine ways to produce the intermediates," he said.
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