University of Delaware researchers, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, have developed a cheaper, non-petroleum method to make plastics from biomass.

Plants into plastics

Team develops cheaper, non-petroleum method to make plastics from biomass


10:22 a.m., April 30, 2012--A team of chemical engineers has discovered a new way to make plastic bottles from biomass rather than petroleum, with researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Delaware announcing the discovery on the heels of Earth Day.

The discovery demonstrates an efficient, renewable way to produce the chemical p-xylene, necessary in creating certain plastic containers. Xylene chemicals are used to produce a plastic called PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is currently used in many products including soda bottles, food packaging, synthetic fibers for clothing and even automotive parts.

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“You can mix our renewable chemical with the petroleum-based material and the consumer would not be able to tell the difference,” said Paul J. Dauenhauer, assistant professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst.

The research was published in the journal ACS Catalysis, a publication of the American Chemical Society.

The new process uses a zeolite catalyst capable of transforming glucose into p-xylene in a three-step reaction within a high-temperature biomass reactor. Researchers call this a major breakthrough since other methods of producing renewable p-xylene are either expensive or inefficient due to low yields. 

"Our discovery shows remarkable potential for green plastics, particularly those used to distribute soft drinks and water,” said Dion Vlachos, director of the University of Delaware’s Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI). “This technology could significantly reduce production costs for manufacturers of plastics from renewable sources."

A key to the success of the new process is using a catalyst specifically designed to promote the p-xylene reaction over other less desirable reactions.

“We discovered that the performance of the biomass reaction was strongly affected by the nanostructure of the catalyst, which we were able to optimize and achieve a 75 percent yield,” said Wei Fan, assistant professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst.

The research team believes further modifying the process could potentially boost the yield and make it even more economically attractive.

This discovery is a part of a larger effort by UD's Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation to create breakthrough technologies for the production of biofuels and chemicals from plant biomass.  The center is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the Energy Frontiers Research Center program, which combines more than 20 faculty with complimentary research skills to collaborate on solving the world’s most pressing energy challenges.

“This is the new frontier in our center and an exciting advancement for biomass transformation," Vlachos said.  

The discovery for the production of plastics adds another dimension to the already rich portfolio of accomplishments of CCEI. Notable examples include:

  • a new Tin-Beta catalyst discovered by a research team led by Mark Davis of the California Institute of Technology, which has the potential to replace the costly and slow bioenzymatic process currently used to convert glucose to fructose; 
  • a novel fuel cell technology developed by a research team led by Ray Gorte and John Vohs at the University of Pennsylvania that converts solid biomass to electricity; and 
  • a catalytic fast pyrolysis technology developed by George Huber and Wei Fan of the University of Massachusetts Amherst that significantly improves the yield for aromatics that can be used as drop-in fuels, such as gasoline. 

About the researchers

 Paul J. Dauenhauer, assistant professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst, is the principal investigator. Co-principal investigators are Dion Vlachos, Elizabeth Inez Kelley Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and director of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation at the University of Delaware; Wei Fan, assistant professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst; and Raul Lobo, professor of chemical and bimolecular engineering at UD. Other collaborators on the project are: C. Luke Williams and Chun-Chih Chang (UMass), and Stavros Caratzoulas, Nima Nikbin and Phuong Do (UD). 

Photo by Evan Krape

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