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Getting trees to grow plastics and fuels

As humans continue to burn through our non-renewable petroleum resources, researchers are continuously searching for a renewable petrochemical replacement. While there is much talk about the various forms of alternative energy, many non-energy related products also rely almost exclusively on the petroleum industry. New work published in last week's edition of Science carried out by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's (PNNL) Institute for Interfacial Catalysis reports on a way to use plants not as a direct biofuel—such as ethanol—but as a way to produce a valuable intermediate for use in a variety of traditional petrochemical applications. 老域名出售

The work reportsa novel way to convert the sugars from biomass, specifically fructose and glucose, into a chemical known as 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). HMF is an important compound because it is "a versatile intermediate between biomass-based carbohydrate chemistry and petroleum-based industrial organic chemistry." HMF can represent both a replacement for petroleum based building blocks heavily used in the plastics and fine chemicals industry; and perhaps more importantly, is a key ingredient in a recently discovered process that produces liquid alkanes from renewable biomass.

Traditional methods for converting biomass to HMF have been limited to using fructose as the feed stock,employed acid catalysts, and are often done using water as the solvent. This led to problems since the acid catalysts would lead to a number of side reactions whose products were difficult to separate from HMF, and the water allowed other undesired reactions to take place. The difficult separation and low selectivity to HMF made these methods less than economically favorable, so they would never see the light of day in a full scale industrial process. The method discovered by Zhang and coworkers at PNNL used an ionic liquid solvent—specifically 1-alkyl-3-methylimidazolium chloride [AMIM]Cl, where alkyl was octyl, butyl, or ethyl—along with a metal catalyst (CrCl2) to produce high yields of HMF from feed stocks of both fructose and glucose. In addition to suppressing some of the unwanted side reactions that occur when water is used as a solvent, [EMIM]Cl is reusable and produces none of the polluted wastewater that result from other methods of converting fructose into HMF.

In addition to developing the process, the researchers attempted to answer the question of why the CrCl2 acts as such a good catalyst when the many other metal salts they tried did not fare as well. They were not able to come to a clear answer to this, but did put forth some chemical mechanisms that explained how the conversions worked in conjunction with the ionic liquid and catalyst. Even without a detailed understanding of the molecular why, this work opens a new way of using biomass to lessen our dependence on non-renewable petroleum. According to Zhang, "the opportunities are endless,and the chemistry is starting to get interesting."


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