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Economical, Sustainable Biochemical Process Devised

Vials with HMF

Vials with HMF in increasing concentrations, from left to right (Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center)

3 May 2019. A chemical engineering lab designed a cost-effective process for a basic raw material to produce chemicals and plastics from plants. A team from University of Wisconsin in Madison and Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center affiliated with the university describes the process in the 12 April issue of the journal Energy and Environmental Science (paid subscription required).

Researchers from the lab of UW chemical engineering professor James Dumesic are seeking better methods for producing chemicals from plants rather then petroleum derivatives. A target of the lab is the compound 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, or HMF, a widely-used product in chemicals, plastics, and fuels, derived from dehydrating sugars. HMF is a precursor substance used in many established processes for turning the compound into end-products. Among those end-products is polyethylene terephthalate, more commonly known as polyester found in fabrics and packaging, including plastic bottles.

“We have known for many years,” says Dumesic in a university statement, “that HMF is a platform molecule with tremendous potential, but it has been an ongoing challenge to produce HMF in a cost-effective manner from sustainable carbohydrate resources.” Part of that challenge was finding a solvent for producing HMF sustainably, both friendly to the environment and economically sustainable.

The task fell to then-graduate student Ali Hussain Motagamwala, now a postdoctoral researcher at University of Michigan. Motagamwala found out that current methods for making HMF use expensive and petroleum-based solvents in processes that are also expensive. His solution, described in the paper, generates HMF from a feedstock of natural sugars derived from plants, such as fructose and glucose.

Motagamwala and colleagues designed a solvent mixing acetone, a natural and readily-available solvent, with water. The team combined the acetone-water solvent with a stable solid acid catalyst, and introduced the solvent and catalyst while dehydrating natural plant sugar fructose. The results show the process can produce HMF and easily separate the solvent from the product, normally an expensive undertaking with today’s methods. The team demonstrated producing HMF efficiently, with 96 percent recovery and 99 percent purity.

The researchers also performed an economic analysis showing with fructose as a feedstock, their process can produce HMF with a minimum sales price of $1,710 per ton and a 25 percent return on investment. With glucose as the feedstock, that sales price can be reduced to $1,460 per ton, but the process is more complex.

“One of the best things about the new process is that all the unit operations used are simple and are currently employed in the industry,” notes Motagamwala. The authors say their process can be integrated into current technologies for producing high-fructose corn syrup, found in many food products, which lowers the initial investment. Because supply of high-fructose corn syrup generally exceeds demand, this process for making HMF can in many instances be added to current production facilities, adding another product and income stream.

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