Acrylonitrile production from precursors sourced from sugar

Acrylonitrile (ACN), a precursor to diverse plastics and fibres is currently derived from propylene. An international team of researchers report the development of a new catalytic method to produce renewable ACN using 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3-HP), which can be sourced from sugars.

The hybrid biological-catalytic process offers an alternative to the conventional petrochemical production method and achieves ACN molar yields of 98 percent from 3-HP via dehydration and nitrilation with ammonia over an inexpensive titanium dioxide solid acid catalyst. The traditional ACN production process achieves yields of approximately 80–83 percent.

The new scheme also eliminates production of hydrogen cyanide and can be performed in a simpler reactor configuration. The high-yield process can utilize non-food biomass, such as agricultural wastes, as a feedstock instead of propylene.

The researchers estimate that the new process could bring the selling price of biomass-derived ACN below $1 per pound from cellulosic biomass or starch-based sugars. This economic target was deemed necessary for cost competitiveness with conventionally produced ACN.