Turning Green Plants Into Greener Plastics

Turning Green Plants Into Greener Plastics

Green Plastics | Plastic Bag Ban Report
NEWARK, Delaware, May 3, 2012 (ENS) - A team of chemical engineers has discovered a new way to make plastic bottles and food packaging from plants rather than from petroleum.

Bioplastics Development Center - University of Massachusetts Lowell

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Delaware announced Monday that they have developed an efficient, renewable method to produce the chemical p-xylene, which is necessary in creating certain plastic containers.

Xylene chemicals are used to produce a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, currently used in many products including soda bottles and food packaging.

"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.

Consumers will already know the plastics made from this new process by the triangular recycling label "#1" on plastic containers.

Renewable P-xylene
The process is inexpensive and creates the chemical p-xylene with an efficient yield of 75 percent, utilizing most of the biomass feedstock, said principal investigator Paul Dauenhauer, assistant professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst.

The new process uses a zeolite catalyst capable of transforming the plant sugar glucose into p-xylene in a three-step reaction within a high-temperature biomass reactor, Vlachos explained. Zeolites are microporous, aluminosilicate minerals widely used as catalysts in the petrochemical industry.

Researchers call the new process a major breakthrough since other methods of producing renewable p-xylene are either expensive or inefficient due to low yields.

"This technology could significantly reduce production costs for manufacturers of plastics from renewable sources," Vlachos said.

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

Professors Wei Fan of UMass Amherst and Raul Lobo of the University of Delaware designed the catalyst.

"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.

Plant-Based Plastics
The research team believes that by further modifying the process they can boost the yield to make production of plant-based plastics even more economically attractive.

Dauenhauer says the new renewable process creates p-xylene from biomass that is indistinguishable from the p-xylene made from petroleum.

"You can mix our renewable chemical with the petroleum-based material and the consumer would not be able to tell the difference," he said.

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

This discovery is a part of a larger effort by the University of Delaware's Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation to create breakthrough technologies for the use of plant biomass in the production of biofuels and chemicals.

The center is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of the Energy Frontiers Research Center program, which teams scientists with complimentary research skills to collaborate on solving the world's most pressing energy challenges.

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

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.

Cover photo: Bioplastic peanuts. Author: Christian Gahle, nova-Institut GmbH. Used by permission under license of GNU Free Documentation License.

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