While most of us are keeping our eye on the transition to electric and self-driving cars and delight in how “green” the future will be, the industrial world continues to crank out billions of tons of plastics every year. Half of that plastic is used once and thrown away. It ends up either in landfills or the oceans. Plastic is just fossil fuel in another form. The long chemical chains of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen atoms found in oil and natural gas get rearranged into everything from synthetic cloth to food packaging. Much of it is used to make one use beverage containers.
Plants can also be a source of hydrocarbons, but converting biomass into the feedstocks needed to make plastics using conventional technology requires very high temperatures. Making all that heat is expensive, and the energy needed often comes from burning fossil fuels, which sort of negates the whole point of making plastics from plant-based sources in the first place.
Scientists at Osaka University in Japan may have discovered something that could have a profound effect on the struggle to create a low carbon future for humanity. They have created a new catalyst that is capable of breaking down hydrocarbon chains from biomass at low temperatures, making the process potentially far more economical. The catalyst they discovered uses ruthenium — a metal related to iron — on a substrate of cerium oxide.
In testing, the catalyst was used to create 2-butanol from levulinic acid derived from biomass. LA, as it is known to industry, is an important chemical for manufacturing solvents. “This is the first time that 2-butanol has been made in this green way, using LA,” explains Tomoo Mizugaki, lead author of the report. “Traditionally, it is made from butene, which comes from highly polluting oil refineries.” The catalyst needed a temperature of only 150º Celsius to work — quite low by industrial standards.
Encouraged by the results, the researchers tested their new catalyst on other biomass chemicals and were rewarded when a range of valuable chemicals were obtained, including cyclohexanol, which is important in the manufacturing of nylon. “We hope this method helps all sectors of industry obtain raw materials from non-fossil sources,” says Kiyotomi Kaneda, one of the authors of the report about the breakthrough. “We need a radical change in thinking so that bio-derived chemicals are considered as primary options in manufacturing.”
This discovery may not get the headlines Elon Musk and Tesla routinely garner from their adoring fans and the media, but it could be even more important to the problem of global warming than electric cars and trucks. More important than space colonies on Mars, even. The fossil fuel crowd likes to think their industry is safe even if electric vehicles take over the world because people will always need plastics made from fossil fuels, right? Actually, thanks to the researchers at Osaka University, that bit of conventional wisdom may no longer be true.
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