Getting a lot greener soon
U.S. researchers invent process to make sustainable rubber and plastics
Synthetic rubber and plastics - used for manufacturing tires, toys and myriad other products - are produced from butadiene, a molecule traditionally made from petroleum or natural gas. But those manmade materials could get a lot greener soon. A team of scientists from three U.S. research universities has invented a process to make butadiene from renewable sources like trees, grasses and corn.
The study’s authors – from the University of Delaware, the University of Minnesota and the University of Massachusetts – 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,” says CCEI Director Dionisios Vlachos, the Allan and Myra Ferguson Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UD and a co-author of the study. “This research could transform the multi-billion-dollar plastics and rubber industries.” 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.
In the world of plastics, butadiene is the chief chemical component in acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), a hard plastic that can be molded into rigid shapes. Tough ABS plastic is used to make video game consoles, automotive parts, sporting goods, medical devices and interlocking plastic toy bricks, among other products. The novel chemistry included a three-step process starting from biomass-derived sugars. Using technology developed within CCEI, the team converted sugars to a ring compound called furfural. In the second step, the team further processed furfural to another ring compound called tetrahydrofuran (THF). It was in the third step that the team found the breakthrough chemical manufacturing technology. Using a new catalyst called “phosphorous all-silica zeolite,” developed within the center, the team was able to convert THF to butadiene with high yield (greater than 95 per cent).