21 May 2009
Plastic that grows on trees
There is now a one-step method to convert cellulose, the most common plant carbohydrate, directly into the building block for plastics and fuels called HMF.
HMF, also known as 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, could be the building block for plastics and biofuels such as gasoline and diesel, essentially the same fuels processed from crude oil.
These results piggyback earlier work where scientists produced HMF from simple sugars derived from cellulose. In this new effort, 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 the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s (PNNL) Institute for Interfacial Catalysis.
In previous work, PNNL researchers used a chemical and a solvent known as an ionic liquid to convert the simple sugars into HMF.
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.
The ionic liquid has the added benefit of being able to dissolve cellulose, which as anyone who has boiled leafy vegetables knows can be stringy and hard to dissolve. Compounds called catalysts speed up the conversion of cellulose to HMF. After trying different metal chloride catalysts in the ionic solvent, they found a pair of catalysts that worked well: A combination of copper chloride and chromium chloride under 120°C 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 10 times faster than the acid and at much lower temperatures. In addition, the paired metal chloride catalysts allowed Zhang’s research team to avoid using another compound under investigation, a mineral acid known to degrade HMF.
Optimizing their method, the team found they could consistently achieve a high yield of HMF, the method converted about 57% of the sugar content in the cellulose feedstock to HMF through this single step process. The team recovered more than 90% of the HMF formed, and the final product from the process was 96% pure.
In addition, researchers said they could use the metal chlorides and ionic liquid multiple times without losing their effectiveness. Being able to recycle the materials will lower the cost of HMF production.
“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,” said PNNL geochemist Jim Amonette, who also was a coauthor of a paper on the subject. “Advances like this can help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”
For related information, go to www.isa.org/environment.