A sweet idea is brewing at CEBC: Turn plant sugars into ingredients for antifreeze, cushy couches and many other consumer goods.
Several recipes exist for cooking up valuable chemical ingredients from plant sugars, but they suffer from major drawbacks. Scorching heat and extreme energy demands spoil some methods. Others involve complicated separation steps.
“We are looking for a mild, energy-efficient process,” said R.V. Chaudhari, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Kansas and CEBC Deputy Director.
Chaudhari’s graduate student Xin Jin recently made a discovery that brings the team closer to this goal. The work, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was featured on the cover of a recent issue of the journal American Chemical Society Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.
Jin created dozens of catalysts with various metals, like nickel and copper. Then he tested them to see if they could refashion glycerol, sorbitol, and other sugars into more valuable chemical intermediates such as lactic acid and glycols, the building blocks for plastics, paints, foams, fibers, and many other everyday items.
Jin found that one catalyst made with platinum turned out to be surprisingly effective. At relatively low temperatures (~130oC), it gives greater than 95 percent desirable products and less than five percent unwanted byproducts.
But that’s not all. Jin’s novel catalyst also whips up hydrogen needed for the recipe—right inside the catalyst. It does this by slicing hydrogen atoms off some glycerol molecules and then sticking them onto other glycerol-derived intermediate molecules to form useful products.
Not having to add hydrogen from an external source means huge energy and cost savings and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. This is because making hydrogen by the usual method—reforming natural gas with steaming hot water at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit—eats up loads of electricity.
Chaudhari refers to their approach as “tandem dehydrogenation/hydrogenolysis.” If the results hold up, this new energy-efficient recipe could one day be used to concoct ingredients for carpets, paints and other household items from renewable plant sugars. Now that’s a sweet idea for companies, farmers and eco-conscious consumers.
--Story by Claudia Bode