A research team from the University of Delaware, the University of Minnesota and the University of Massachusetts has developed a process to make butadiene—a key component in synthetic rubber and plastic—from renewable sources such as trees, grasses and corn. As a result, products that range from tires to toys may become a lot greener in the near future.
The study’s authors are part of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) based at the University of Delaware. CCEI is an Energy Frontier Research Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
“Our team combined a catalyst we recently discovered with new and exciting chemistry to find the first high-yield, low-cost method of manufacturing butadiene,” said CCEI Director Dionisios Vlachos, a professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Delaware and a co-author of the study. “This research could transform the multi-billion-dollar plastics and rubber industries.”
Butadiene, a molecule traditionally made from petroleum or natural gas, is the chief chemical component in a broad range of materials. When this four-carbon molecule undergoes a chemical reaction to form long chains called polymers, styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) is formed, which is used to make abrasive-resistant automobile tires. When blended to make nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR), it becomes the key component in hoses, seals and medical rubber gloves.
In the world of plastics, butadiene is the chief chemical component in acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), a hard plastic that can be molded into rigid shapes. ABS is used to make products such as automotive parts, medical devices and interlocking plastic toy bricks.
The past 10 years have seen a shift toward an academic research focus on renewable chemicals and butadiene, in particular, due to its importance in commercial products, Vlachos said.
“Our team’s success came from our philosophy that connects research in novel catalytic materials with a new approach to the chemistry,” he said. “This is a great example where the research team was greater than the sum of its parts.”
The novel chemistry included a three-step process starting from biomass-derived sugars. Using technology developed within CCEI, the team converted sugars to a ring compound called furfural. In the second step, the team further processed furfural to another ring compound called tetrahydrofuran (THF).
It was in the third step that the team found the breakthrough chemical manufacturing technology. Using a new catalyst called “phosphorous all-silica zeolite,” developed within the center, the team was able to convert THF to butadiene with high yield (greater than 95%).
The team called this new, selective reaction “dehydra-decyclization,” to represent its capability for simultaneously removing water and opening ring compounds at once.
“We discovered that phosphorus-based catalysts supported by silica and zeolites exhibit high selectivity for manufacturing chemicals like butadiene,” said Prof. Wei Fan of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “When comparing their capability for controlling certain industrial chemistry uses with that of other catalysts, the phosphorous materials appear truly unique and nicely complement the set of catalysts we have been developing at CCEI.”
“This newer technology significantly expands the slate of molecules we can make from lignocellulose,” said Prof. Paul Dauenhauer of the University of Minnesota, who is co-director of CCEI and a co-author of the study.
Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation
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Filed Under: Design World articles, Green engineering
Wow! Cool science. I am sending this to my high school daughter for motivation in chemistry!
Nothing says green like increasing our use of land hundreds to thousands of times and harvesting ever more of the greenery of the planet, displacing countless wildlife in the process. AMIRIGHT?
William K. says
This seems like it should be a game changer type of discovery. Just what is needed, a way to avoid using petroleum as a feed stock. Now the challenge is to move it from the laboratory to the production area. That is where many great ideas fall down. Just because it can be done does not mean that it can be done economically and consistently.
Now for a complaint, which is that that collection of share-icons along the left side blocks the start of the lines of text. Make them half the width so that they will not block any of the text. And I urge all readers to avoid sharing using those icons.
Roy Plant says
Fantastic. So even when the oil runs out we can continue to manufacture the same pollutants that have entered the food chain and caused everything in the sea and consequently everything (everyone) who eats food from the sea to be partly composed of plastic. Well done, a much greener method of polluting the planet.
Carl Sagan says
Those pollutants only get into the food chain/ sea because they are not properly disposed of – I believe that is the issue you need to be working on. looking forward to your positive contribution to the planet. Cheers!