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Green Plastics Process Discovered

plastic bottlesUniversity of Massachusetts Amherst researchers have discovered a new chemical process to make p-xylene, an important ingredient of common plastics, at 90 percent yield from lignocellulosic biomass, the highest yield achieved to date.

Xylene chemicals are used to produce PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is used in many products including soda bottles, food packaging, synthetic fibers for clothing and automotive parts.

As chemical engineering researcher Paul Dauenhauer and colleagues explain in the current issue of Green Chemistry, the chemical industry currently produces p-xylene from more expensive petroleum, while the new process will make the same chemical from lower-cost, renewable biomass. He and colleagues call the process “ultraselective” because of its ability to achieve 90 percent selectivity for the desired product.

The biomass-derived p-xylene can be mixed with petroleum-based plastics, and consumers will not be able to tell the difference, researchers say.  Meanwhile, manufacturers and chemical companies will be able to operate more sustainably and at lower cost.

The UMass Amherst team’s discovery highlights the impact of nano-structured catalyst design on renewable chemical processes. Led by Wei Fan, they examined a large number of nano-porous catalytic materials, including zeolites, investigating their capability for producing p-xylene. Researchers found a specific material identified as “zeolite beta” to be optimal.

The latest report from EL PRO provides research on green plastics, including both biodegradable and bio-based materials, that can help companies cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduce consumption of fossil resources and minimize waste-to-landfill.

BASF last month inked a deal with California biochemical company Genomatica to build a production facility to make sugar-based 1,4-butanediol (BDO) using Genomatica’s technology. The German chemical giant says renewable BDO has valuable applications for the plastics, textile and automotive industries.

Also in May, US based biochemical firm OPX Biotechnologies entered into an agreement with German chemical company Evonik Industries to jointly develop bio-based chemicals.

Photo Credit: Steven Depolo via Flickr


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One thought on “Green Plastics Process Discovered

  1. Great breakthrough, but we need to ensure that the plants are actually grown sustainably and use fewer resources than making the plastic from petroleum, and don’t drive up the cost of food crops

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