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ExxonMobil is sitting pretty in the petrochemical market of the future, but a sustainable plastic developed with federal funding could disrupt those plans.

Green Economy

Don’t Look Back, Natural Gas: Sustainable Plastic Is Gaining On You

ExxonMobil is sitting pretty in the petrochemical market of the future, but a sustainable plastic developed with federal funding could disrupt those plans.

Is ExxonMobil going to waste a few billion or so dollars to build a gigantic new gas-to-plastics facility in Texas? Probably not, but they still might want to start looking around for alternative feedstocks. A team of scientists organized under the Energy Department’s Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation has developed a low cost, high yield process that they’re billing as a world first. If the research continues apace, sustainable sugar-based basketballs, tires, and even Lego could be on the horizon.

Speaking of the Energy Department, CleanTechnica has been noting the frantic pace at which the agency has been churning out good news about clean tech, including a healthy dose of foundational research. DOE’s main News & Blog page is rather thin but its offices, affiliates and social media have been cheerleading nonstop for renewable energy and sustainable technology ever since President Trump took office. What’s up with that?

Thanks, Trump: Big News About Sustainable Plastic (And Rubber)

The Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation is hosted by the University of  Delaware. CCEI also includes the Energy Department’s Brookhaven and nine other top universities.

The whole thing comes under the Frontier Research Center initiative, which is funded by the Energy Department, and which the Trump Administration now owns.

The sustainable rubber news comes from a CCEI team spearheaded by the University of Delaware, in collaboration with the University of Minnesota and the University of Massachusetts.

The March for Science happened just last weekend, so here’s a shoutout to the co-authors of the new research:

CCEI co-directorPaul Dauenhauer, Wei Fan, Michael Tsapatsis, Dae Sung Park, Charles Spanjers, Limin Ren, Omar Abdelrahman, Katherine Vinter, and Hong Je Cho.

Thanks, guys.

From Leaves And Grass To Plastic

So, how did they do that?

The key to the research development is a new catalyst developed through CCEI, with the Star Trek-worthy name of phosphorous all-silica zeolite.

The new catalyst comes in at step three of a three-step process.

The first two steps involve converting plant sugars to the compound furfural and then into another compound, tetrahydrofuran.

The third step comes under the name of dehydra-decyclization, meaning that water is removed (dehydra) and the ring compounds are opened up simultaneously.

Put it all together and you have a low cost, high-yield process, topping 95%, for synthesizing butadiene.


Okay, so the butadiene thing doesn’t sound all that exciting at first, but consider this from the University of Delaware:

Butadiene is the chief chemical component in a broad range of materials found throughout society. When this four-carbon molecule undergoes a chemical reaction to form long chains called polymers, styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) is formed, which is used to make abrasive-resistant automobile tires. When blended to make nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR), it becomes the key component in hoses, seals and the rubber gloves ubiquitous to medical settings.

Butadiene is also the precursor to acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene. In this configuration it is a hard plastic used for everything from gaming consoles to sports equipment and yes, Legos.

Speaking of Lego, the Lego Group has been on a sustainable energy shopping spree with big buys into wind power.

Among numerous other sustainability initiatives, Lego is also shopping around for alternative feedstocks to manufacture Lego blocks.

What Now, ExxonMobil?

So, here’s the deal. ExxonMobil has been doubling down on shale gas in the US, and the shale gas boom is the chief driving force behind the demise of coal for power generation.

That’s great for ExxonMobil, but it might not last too much longer. Cheap natural gas is already beginning to face competition from low cost renewables. Local opposition to fracking operations and pipeline development is also a force that could burst loose after the next election cycle.

It seems that ExxonMobil is already prepping for the day when natural gas will lose its pole position in the power generation market.

The company is looking ahead to the gas-to-plastics market, and its proposed new gas-to-plastics facility in Texas is a case in point.

Plans for the new $10 billion facility just passed a major milestone last week, when the company selected a site near the city of Portland, in the Corpus Christie area.

ExxonMobil is developing the new petrochemical plant in partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Basic Industries Corp.

They’re billing it as the world’s largest ethane cracker.

The idea is to get a jumpstart on the growing demand for plastics in emerging economies.

It’s the perfect set-up for fracking whack-a-mole: the US power generating sector could go 100% gas free in the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t necessarily mean an end to fracking — unless, that is, the Energy Department keeps funding research for more and better bioplastics.

Image: University of Delaware/ Jeffrey Chase.


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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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