Biofuels continue to steal the spotlight when it comes to the search for a renewable, environmentally friendly replacement for crude oil. While that’s understandable when considering the transport industry, but crude oil is also used in the production of conventional plastics and chemical products such as fertilizers and solvents. Now chemists have learned how to convert plant biomass directly into a chemical building block that can not only be used to produce fuel, but also plastics, polyester and industrial chemicals cheaply and efficiently.
Earlier work by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) saw the development of a process to convert glucose and fructose derived from cellulose, into a primary building block for fuel and polyesters known as hydroxymethylfurfural, or HMF. Although it is a fairly simple process to convert HMF into plastics or biofuel, it is seldom used because HMF is costly to make. Other researchers had previously converted fructose into HMF, but the PNNL research group made a series of improvements that raised the HMF output, and also made the HMF easier to extract.
Using a chemical and solvent known as an ionic liquid, the PNNL team was able to convert the simple sugars into HMF. The chemical, a metal chloride known as chromium chloride, converted sugar into highly pure HMF, but the team still needed to break down cellulose into simple sugars – a step they wanted to skip.