While this breakthrough discovery may not immediately resonate with a majority of the population (not 70% of it anyway), it has already sent the scientific world into a tizzy over its potential implications for biorefinery and our dependence on oil. As reported in this week's issue of Science (subscription needed), a group of scientists have discovered a way to convert glucose into HFM (hydroxymethylfurfural), a chemical that is broken down into components used to manufacture products now made from oil.
Since crude oil is the base component for fuels, plastic and several industrial and household chemicals, finding a method of replacing it with an environmentally friendly, cheap renewable plant matter has long been one of the Holy Grails in science. Z. Conrad Zhang, the lead author and a scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)-based Institute for Interfacial Catalysis, described the team's accomplishment thusly: "What we have done that no one else has been able to do is convert glucose directly in high yields to a primary building block for fuel and polyesters."HMF, the putative building block, is a chemical derived from sugars like glucose and fructose that has shown promise as a replacement for oil-based chemicals typically used to make several consumer goods and industrial chemicals. Although glucose, a sugar commonly found in plants, is the planet's most abundant carbohydrate, developing a method of extracting a measurable amount of HMF from it had proven difficult until now, not least because of the production of several impurities.
Using an innovative non-acidic catalytic system containing metal chloride catalysts (a class of metal halides) in a solvent, or liquid, capable of dissolving cellulose, Zhang and his colleagues were able to obtain HMF yields of 70% or higher from glucose and nearly 90% from fructose with few impurities. Solvents such as the one used here are beneficial in one important respect: they are reusable and therefore do not produce the wastewater typically found in other fructose to HMF conversion processes.
"This, in my view, is breakthrough science in the renewable energy arena," said J.M. White, the director of the Institute for Interfacial Catalysis and Robert A. Welch chair in materials chemistry at the University of Texas. "This work opens the way for fundamental catalysis science in a novel solvent."
Zhang and his team are now hoping to increase HMF yield from glucose while minimizing the formation of impurities by tweaking the combinations of metal halides and ionic solvents used in the process. "The opportunities are endless and the chemistry is starting to get interesting," Zhang said.
Image courtesy of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
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