A team of chemical and biological engineers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has found a way to produce a valuable compound used in plastic production from biomass. The researchers estimate that this method could lower the cost of ethanol produced from plant material by more than two dollars per gallon.
The development is a result of an ongoing effort to create commodity chemicals from biomass that are conventionally derived from petroleum. These bio-derived chemicals could serve as high value co-products of the biofuels manufacturing process, improving the economics of the cellulosic bio-refinery.
In their paper published in ChemSusChem, the researchers report a new chemical pathway used to produce 1,5-pentanediol, a plastic precursor primarily used to make polyurethanes and polyester plastics. The group’s highly efficient approach is six times cheaper than a previously reported method, and represents the first economically viable way of producing 1,5-pentanediol from biomass.
Plant biomass is typically about 40 percent oxygen by weight, while petroleum oil is less than 0.1 percent oxygen. They used the oxygen already inherent in the biomass to produce high value oxygenated commodity chemicals that can be used to make performance polymer materials like polyurethanes and polyesters.
The study’s foundational discovery also provides fundamental chemistry that could be applicable to a wide cross-section of products. For instance, the same pathway could be used to produce two other plastic precursors — 1,4 butanediol and 1,6-hexanediol — currently derived from petroleum and which together represent an annual market of more than $6 billion. The researchers plan to refine their work, collecting the data needed to scale their process up to pilot plant testing.