We tend not to acknowledge it, but our dependence on oil is not limited to the consumption of fossil fuels for energy and transportation. Finding an alternative to plastic (which is also made from oil), is proving to be one of the most difficult problems we face today. Recently scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have announced a groundbreaking development that provides a simple solution to the problem, transforming plant cellulose into plastic in one single step.
The vast majority of products these days are either made of – or packaged in – plastic, so finding an alternative substance that may be manufactured from a non-polluting, inexpensive resource is of paramount importance. As mentioned in the June 15th issue of the journal Science, researchers at PNNL have been able to convert glucose found in plant cellulose into 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), a basic building block for fuel, polyesters, and other petroleum-based chemicals. The main problem in creating this building block is that it is quite expensive to do, and the process yield are quite low. Furthermore, the final HMF product is laced with impurities, making it difficult to use.
Previous attempts at synthesizing HMF started with simple sugars, however researchers at PNNL have now found a way to turn plant cellulose into the building block in one single step. Thanks to clever tinkering, the team was able to extract HMF from plants by using a mixture of copper chloride and chromium chloride to break down the cellulose without creating unwanted byproducts. The chlorides didn’t degrade, which meant that the process could be repeated using the same chemicals, reducing the cost of creating HMF while yielding a product with fewer impurities.
While still a ways off from commercial applications, the process shows promise in creating an alternative to plastics. The next steps involve fine-tuning the process to increase the yields while further reducing the cost of production.
Via Science Daily