Jul 19, 2019 | Updated: 08:51 AM EDT

Plant Sugars Used as Raw Material for Plastics Chemical

May 11, 2019 02:31 PM EDT

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Collaborators from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed an efficient and economically-feasible manner of producing HMF or 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, a chemical derived from plants that could help solve in the transition from a fossil-based economy towards an environmentally-friendly bio-based economy. Their research has been published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science.

The researchers demonstrate that the method involves a compatible and simple process that can be integrated into the high fructose corn syrup industry.

"We integrated into a current process to reduce the initial risk quite a bit and decrease the initial capital required to put things on the ground to prove the technology," says Ali Hussain Motagamwala, who led the project while a UW-Madison graduate student in chemical and biological engineering.

HMF is a raw material in producing plastics, fuels, and chemicals. Its feasibility as a good material for commercialization is established since most products use HMF. One of these is the plant-derived version of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which is used in plastics for food packaging and in making beverage bottles. Industries like BASF, Coke, and Danone have designed to used 100 percent bio-based plastic bottles from furan dicarboxylic acid, a chemical derived from HMF.

The current issue involves the high production cost in HMF. It is more expensive to use bio-based plastics because of the need to scale current processes in manufacturing.

"There is a demand for sustainable alternatives. The question is, how cost-competitive can we be with petroleum-based products?" says Motagamwala.

Senior author James A. Dumesic, a UW-Madison chemical and biological engineering professor, has been specializing in the field of HMF production derived from biomass.

"We have known for many years that HMF is a platform molecule with tremendous potential, but it has been an ongoing challenge to produce HMF in a cost-effective manner from sustainable carbohydrate resources," Dumesic says. "Our early work focused on the use of special solvent systems to produce HMF from fructose with high yields."

The issue involves the solvent being used in the production of HMF.

"The solvents that are generally used are expensive themselves, and separation of the solvent and product makes the process even more expensive," Motagamwala says. "Now we have shown that we can make HMF in really high yield -- close to 95% -- with an inexpensive solvent system that can be removed very easily."

The GLBRC team's process dehydrates fructose to HMF using a solvent system composed of just acetone and water, with a stable solid acid catalyst. In addition to being cheap and readily accessible, the solvents are environmentally benign and easy to separate from the resulting HMF.

"One of the best things about the new process is that all the unit operations used are simple and are currently employed in the industry," Motagamwala says. That means a lower capital investment and less risk than is generally associated with unproven technologies.

There will be a 25% return on investment by rolling out the new process. It has a minimum selling price of $1,710 per ton. 

The determinant in the price is the cost of fructose as feedstock. When fructose corn syrup is higher than demand, the excess fructose can be converted as HMF.

The researchers are trying to find a process into using glucose instead of fructose as glucose is more abundance and is less expensive.

"The long-term implementation of the process is to get plants starting from glucose, which will drive the cost even lower," he says.

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