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Sweeten Up: From Sugars to High-Value Chemicals

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A sweet idea is brewing at CEBC: Turn plant sugars into ingredients for antifreeze, cushy couches and many other consumer goods.

Several recipes exist for cooking up valuable chemical ingredients from plant sugars, but they suffer from major drawbacks. Scorching heat and extreme energy demands spoil some methods. Others involve complicated separation steps.  

cover art for journal“We are looking for a mild, energy-efficient process,” said R.V. Chaudhari, Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Kansas and CEBC Deputy Director.  

Chaudhari’s graduate student Xin Jin recently made a discovery that brings the team closer to this goal. The work, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was featured on the cover of a recent issue of the journal American Chemical Society Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.

Jin created dozens of catalysts with various metals, like nickel and copper. Then he tested them to see if they could refashion glycerol, sorbitol, and other sugars into more valuable chemical intermediates such as lactic acid and glycols, the building blocks for plastics, paints, foams, fibers, and many other everyday items.

cover art for journalJin found that one catalyst made with platinum turned out to be surprisingly effective. At relatively low temperatures (~130oC), it gives greater than 95 percent desirable products and less than five percent unwanted byproducts.    

But that’s not all. Jin’s novel catalyst also whips up hydrogen needed for the recipe—right inside the catalyst. It does this by slicing hydrogen atoms off some glycerol molecules and then sticking them onto other glycerol-derived intermediate molecules to form useful products.  

Not having to add hydrogen from an external source means huge energy and cost savings and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. This is because making hydrogen by the usual method—reforming natural gas with steaming hot water at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit—eats up loads of electricity.

Chaudhari refers to their approach as “tandem dehydrogenation/hydrogenolysis.” If the results hold up, this new energy-efficient recipe could one day be used to concoct ingredients for carpets, paints and other household items from renewable plant sugars. Now that’s a sweet idea for companies, farmers and eco-conscious consumers.

--Story by Claudia Bode



CEBC Calendar

September 13, Wednesday - Mandatory Lab Safety Meeting
All researchers at 1501 Wakarusa Dr. must attend

9:00 a.m. in Building B seminar room

September 19, Tuesday - CEBC Colloquium
Dr. David Sholl, Chair of Georgia Tech School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering
"New Nanoporous Materials for Practical Applications Using Computation Modeling - How Close Is the Dream to Reality?"

9:00 a.m. - 10:00 a.m., 1501 Wakarusa Drive, Building B seminar room
10:00 a.m. discussion with students

October 16 & 17, Monday & Tuesday - CEBC Fall Industry Advisory Board Meeting
Registration is Open - click here!

Monday 12:00-7:30 p.m. at the Adams Alumni Center, 1266 Oread Avenue, Lawrence
Tuesday 8:30-noon at the CEBC Complex, 1501 Wakarusa Drive, Lawrence

November 7, Tuesday - CEBC Industry Colloquium
Dr. Brandon Emme, Cellulose Team Leader, ICM, Inc.
"Title TBA"

9:00 a.m. - 10:00 a.m., 1501 Wakarusa Drive, Building B seminar room
10:00 a.m. discussion with students

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