The quest to use renewable resources for production instead of fossil fuels has reached a new level with the discovery of a chemical process that produces the major component of rubber and plastics.
This sustainable engineering process is the result of research and testing by scientists from three universities: the University of Minnesota, the University of Delaware and the University of Massachusetts. The schools worked with the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Frontier Research Center.
Common items such as tires, automotive parts, video game consoles and toys consist of rubber and hard plastic made from the molecule butadiene. Traditionally, butadiene derived from petroleum and natural gas. With the new process, scientists can produce the molecule using renewable resources such as grasses or corn and thus, make rubber greener.
The findings from the research will appear in the ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering journal from the American Chemical Society later this year.
The Production of Butadiene Through Sustainable Engineering
Butadiene is the major chemical component in some compounds including styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR), nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR) and acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene plastic (ABS). Commercial industries commonly use the items produced by these compounds. Tires contain SBR. Rubber gloves and hoses include NBR while sporting goods and medical devices consist of ABS. The rubber and plastics markets are multi-billion dollar industries.
Dionisios Vlachos, a Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware believes this new process can transform the plastics and rubber industries due to the discovery of the “first high-yield, low-cost method of manufacturing butadiene.”
The process consists of three steps that begin with biomass-derived sugars. In the first step, the team converts the sugars to a ring compound named furfural by fermenting them into a compound known as itaconic acid.
The second step takes the process further by converting furfural to tetrahydrofuran (THF), a separate ring compound. Reacting the itaconic acid with hydrogen in the second step can result in isoprene as a result.
The third step introduces a catalyst known as Phosphorus All-Silica Zeolite to create butadiene with a yield of 95 percent. Researchers were also able to use the catalyst Phosphorus Self-Pillared Pentasil (P-SPP) to create isoprene with a high yield of 90 percent.
In the past, researchers have tried to create biomass-derived butadiene and isoprene from fermentation but lacked the ability to generate the renewable microbes needed for fermentation. The new sustainable process joins the biological process of microbial fermentation with catalytic refining.
The production of biofuels from lignocellulosic materials continues to move forward with the expansion of rubber and plastic production. In 2016, a project launched in Ghana to create second-generation biofuels, such as bioethanol, biogas and biodiesel. The study used materials like rice husks and manure to impact transportation, power distribution, cooking and fertilizer.
With the biomass-derived THF production process using materials like corn, trees and grasses, scientists can tap into renewable sources and lessen the impact of burning fossil fuels around the world while continuing to meet the high demand for tires and other rubber products.
How Biomass-Derived THF Will Change the Rubber and Plastics Industries
The discovery of biomass-derived THF and its catalysts laid further groundwork for the CCEI and researching university teams to continue advancing the study of biofuels and renewable chemicals. As the research continues, the commercialization of this process is the next step.
One of the universities involved in the discovery, the University of Minnesota, plans to apply for a patent through its Office of Technology Commercialization on the technology for the isoprene production. Once patented, the technology will be available for licensing to rubber and plastics companies looking for a way to make rubber greener with this process.