Posted in | Plastics and Polymers

Novel Process to Produce Sustainable Rubber, Plastics

'Our team combined a catalyst we recently discovered with new and exciting chemistry to find the first high-yield, low-cost method of manufacturing butadiene,' says Dionisios Vlachos, Director of the University of Delaware's Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation. (CREDIT - University of Delaware/ Jeffrey Chase)

Butadiene, a molecule traditionally manufactured from natural gas or petroleum, is used to produce synthetic rubber and plastics used for manufacturing toys, tires, and numerous other products.

But those synthetic materials could become a lot greener soon because of the ingenuity of a team of researchers from three U.S. research universities.

The collaborative research team -- from the University of Delaware, the University of Minnesota and the University of Massachusetts - has invented a process to create butadiene from renewable sources like grasses, trees and corn.

The research findings, currently online, will be published in the American Chemical Society's ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, a leading journal in green chemistry and engineering. The study's authors are all affiliated with the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) based at the University of Delaware. CCEI is an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Our team combined a catalyst we recently discovered with new and exciting chemistry to find the first high-yield, low-cost method of manufacturing butadiene. This research could transform the multi-billion-dollar plastics and rubber industries.

Dionisios Vlachos, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, University of Delaware

Butadiene is the main chemical component in a wide range of materials found in everyday life.  When this four-carbon molecule undergoes a chemical reaction to develop long chains called polymers, styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) is created, which is used to produce abrasive-resistant automobile tires. When mixed to produce nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR), it becomes the main component in seals, hoses, and the rubber gloves found in medical settings.

In the plastics sector, butadiene is the main chemical component in acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), a hard plastic that can be molded into hard shapes. Hard ABS plastic is used to build video game consoles, medical devices, sporting goods, automotive parts, and interlocking plastic toy bricks, among other products.

The past decade has witnessed a shift toward an academic research focus on renewable chemicals and butadiene specifically due to its significance in commercial products, Vlachos says.

Our team's success came from our philosophy that connects research in novel catalytic materials with a new approach to the chemistry. This is a great example where the research team was greater than the sum of its parts.

Dionisios Vlachos, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, University of Delaware

Novel chemistry in three steps

The novel chemistry comprised of a three-step process beginning with biomass-derived sugars. Using technology formulated within CCEI, the team converted sugars to a ring compound known as furfural. In the second step, the team processed furfural additionally to another ring compound known as tetrahydrofuran (THF).

The third step helped the team discover the innovative chemical manufacturing technology. Using a new catalyst known as "phosphorous all-silica zeolite," developed within the center, the team converted THF to butadiene with high yield of more than 95%.

The team called this unique, selective reaction "dehydra-decyclization" to signify its capability for concurrently removing water and opening ring compounds at same time.

We discovered that phosphorus-based catalysts supported by silica and zeolites exhibit high selectivity for manufacturing chemicals like butadiene. When comparing their capability for controlling certain industrial chemistry uses with that of other catalysts, the phosphorous materials appear truly unique and nicely complement the set of catalysts we have been developing at CCEI.

Professor Wei Fan, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The invention of renewable rubber forms a part of CCEI's greater mission. Started in 2009, CCEI has focused on transformational catalytic technology to create biofuels and renewable chemicals from natural biomass sources.

"This newer technology significantly expands the slate of molecules we can make from lignocellulose," says Prof. Paul Dauenhauer of the University of Minnesota, who is co-director of CCEI and a co-author of the study.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have a review, update or anything you would like to add to this news story?

Leave your feedback
Submit