UW researchers find new ways to produce 'green' plastic

If you had to name something as ubiquitous as the air we breathe in, it would be plastic. From cheap soda bottles to the shopping baskets in the market, plastic is essential to our lives. However, it’s also devastating for being non-renewable in large quantities. One of the researchers trying to solve that problem is Ali Hussain Motagamwala, a graduate student working under James Dumesic, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, with funding provided by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

“Our goal is to produce large quantities of renewable plastic from biomass in both industrial and commercial plants cost effectively,” said Motagamwala.

The common plastic that is familiar to us is polyethylene terephthalate (PET), produced from fossil fuels or natural gas, which is bad for the environment if used in large quantities, especially since it is not easily recyclable. The potential substitute for PET is polyethylenefuranoate (PEF) plastic, which is produced from renewable resources. Although PEF had good potential to replace PET as an eco-friendly plastic, the high cost and production of undesirable waste products during the manufacturing of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), a chemical used in making PEF, has prevented further progress.

“FDCA was hard to make before because we used large quantities of solvents to produce small quantities of product,” Motagamwala said.

He emphasized that the key to solve this problem was to use a different solvent system composed of half gamma-valerolactone and water. His method covers two major steps: convert fructose into hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) and then use the same solvent to oxidize HMF and procure high yields of FDCA. Additionally, the solvent eliminates the use of mineral acid and base thereby reducing waste production, which should cut the costs of production and make the process more efficient.

As benign as the process seems, there might be some costs hidden in making this process more commercial.

“We were able to see this happen in petri dishes at a smaller laboratory scale size, so I am not sure if the industrial or commercial plants will yield the same,” Motagamwala said.

Motagamwala also added that the price of fructose may significantly influence the progress of this research. Since fructose is processed from glucose, a more widely available type of natural sugar, it is less abundant and higher in price. In order to reduce the price of fructose, it would be helpful to develop a production method to produce it chemically.

“This method has a lot of potential and is a very profitable process. It will be a worthwhile investment to look for, and collaborations based on techno-economic analysis would be very helpful. I am very confident that this research will be helpful in making plastic more affordable and benign to the environment,” Motagamwala said. The worry of increasing environmentally harmful plastic usage may soon be replaced with the feeling of hope with this promising engineering effort for biorenewable products.

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