Plastics from Biomass Opens Pathway to Reduced Reliance on Oil

chidorian/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/U. Utrecht promo image/author collage

Scientists at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, in cooperation with Dow Chemicals, can make chemical raw materials from biomass rather than from petroleum.

We have long wondered why the discussion about peak petroleum always emphasizes how expensive personal transportation will become as petroleum supplies dwindle. The better question is why are we wasting such a valuable raw material by burning it in our cars?

The forces of nature that pushed carbon molecules together into longer chains in the form of petroleum have subsidized modern development for almost a century now. When petroleum runs out, putting together the raw materials for modern products ranging from pharmaceuticals to paints to plastics is not so easy.

Nanocatalyst Converts SynGas to Ethylene and Propylene

The key to the new process is a nanocatalyst consisting of iron particles only 0.00002 millimeters stabilized on a carbon nanofibers. A gaseous mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, called SynGas because it is a gas synthesized from biomass, passes across the catalyst and is converted to ethylene and propylene.

Ethylene molecules have two carbons linked together and propylene molecules have three carbon chains. These molecules are exactly the same as the molecules derived from petroleum. In fact, they may have advantages in health and safety, because they do not need to be purified of the many carcinogenic and otherwise hazardous constituents of petroleum.

Of course, nanotechnology needs a lot more work to ensure that the hazards are understood and properly managed, but processes such as these weigh on the positive side of the risk-benefit analysis.

Making the SynGas

Making fuels from biomass has been done on large scales in times of severe duress, such as during wars, when tree roots might be turned into fighter plane fuel for example. More recently, in the face of peak oil, experiments with coal-to-liquid fuel or landfill gas reclamation

The conversion relies on a series of reactions called the Fischer-Tropsch process. .

The Fischer-Tropsch process can be used on crop remains, grasses, trees, or other non-consumable biomass. This would reduce one major issue that bioplastics are facing: bioplastics often compete with our tables for raw materials.

The Path to the Future

This research does not mean that substituting the chemicals we get from petroleum today provides the only path to the future. But as bioplastics hit obstacles from performance issues to beer price crises, and as petroleum supplies dwindle, alternatives may provide a bridge to the bio-based economy we hope for in the more distant future.

The research of Professor Krijn de Jong and his team is published in the 17 February 2012 issue of Science.

Tags: Alternative Fuels | Chemicals | Netherlands | Plastics

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