Monday, May 14th, 2012

New Process Turns Biomass to Plastic Efficiently, Economically

A team of researchers from the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI), a U.S. Department of Energy-funded group based at the University of Delaware, has developed a process to turn biomass into p-exylene, a chemical used in the production of PET and other plastics. Initial publication of the research was in the journal ACS Catalysis.

Paul Dauenhauer, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who headed the combined U Delaware/UMass Amherst team, told PlasticsToday that this renewable version of the chemical can mix with the petroleum-based version and the consumer would not be able to tell the difference.

This development fits with the goal of a number of high-volume users of PET packaging for a drop-in sustainable version of PET by the end of this decade. For these users,  a biobased PET (polyethylene terephthalate) material would enable them to reach their stated sustainability goals without the need to modify either their existing package production and filling lines or already existing recycling streams and processes.

The new process is based on a zeolite catalyst specifically designed for this process that transforms glucose from biomass into p-exylene in a three-step reaction in a high-temperature biomass reactor. The process is said to be inexpensive, and according to Dauenhauer, creates the p-exylene chemical with an efficiency yield of 75%, while using most of the biomass feedstock. He also says that further modification of the process can boost the yield efficiency, making it yet more attractive economically.

Dauenhauer termed this a major breakthrough because other methods of

producing renewable p-xylene are either more expensive, for example fermentation, or offer inefficiently low yields.

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