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The new formula can produce cheap environmental plastics.
- Oct 16, 2018 -

Plastics have a huge carbon footprint: producing this oil-based material produces at least 100 million tons of carbon a year. Now, an American research team has invented a cheap way to make plastics from sugar and corncob. If the plastic can be produced at a low enough cost, it may one day replace one of the world's most common plastics, polyethylene terephthalate. Food packaging bags, water bottles, and even polyester cotton all contain PET.

For decades, oil was the raw material for almost all plastics - from polyethylene to propylene. But the oil crisis of the 1970s prompted researchers to look for alternatives to using plants instead of oil to produce plastics. DuPont and other chemical companies have made progress. But scientists are continuing to look for alternatives to PET based on biology, and the most promising is polyethylene foam. Using renewable energy, researchers have successfully developed a main component of PEF, furan two formic acid. However, the cost of this method is very high.

To this end, Jim Dumesic, an engineer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his team set out to find ways to reduce costs. 10 years later, they found that the key to achieving this method was a solvent called gamma pentlactone. GVL is a liquid without color and can be obtained from renewable energy such as corncob. When Dumesic and his colleagues added GVL and an organic acid catalyst to water, they converted fructose, a sugar found in fruits, vegetables and corn syrup, into an organic compound that could be used as a precursor to FDCA. Because GVL performed so well, the Dumesic team needed only a small amount of fructose to produce large amounts of pure FDCA.

Ali Hussain Motagamwala, a chemical engineer at the University of Wisconsin and co-author of the latest study, said the new method solved three problems in plastics production. First of all, it uses renewable carbon sources rather than fossil fuels. Second, previous attempts to make FDCA from renewable sources of energy required corrosive acids and expensive reactors, which were not required by new methods. Third, scientists can use the final product FDCA as the reaction catalyst and recycle GVL solvent. Compared with existing methods, this will reduce costs and save energy. "The latest approach has made the whole process greener."