An accidental chemistry discovery could lead to a new method for making antifreeze, moisturizer and plastic bottles out of biomass rather than petroleum, according to researchers at Iowa State University.
Professor Walter Trahanovsky was using a high-temperature chemistry process to see if he could obtain sugar derivatives from cellulose. It's based on supercritical fluids, which are heated under pressure until their fluid and gas states merge. It is not quite as exotic as it sounds — supercritical carbon dioxide is used to decaffeinate coffee.
Trahanovsky and his colleagues put cellulosic materials in alcohols and subjected them to high temperatures and pressures. They got the sugars they were looking for, but they also found something else: significant amounts of propylene glycol and ethylene glycol. This was totally unexpected, Trahanovsky said.
Anyone who has ever read a body-lotion bottle would recognize the name propylene glycol — it's a key moisturizing ingredient. It is used in a variety of products, including as a food additive. Ethylene glycol is most commonly used in antifreeze, polyester fabric and plastic bottles.
The supercritical fluid process could be a better way to obtain these materials from biomass instead of petroleum. Current biomass-refining processes require strong acids or other harmful or expensive reagents, and the processes also generate hazardous waste.
Trahanovsky said the process also produces sugar compounds that can be converted into glucose for ethanol production or other uses. The Iowa State University Research Foundation Inc. filed for a patent based on his technology.
Makes sense, petroleum is just biomass plus a few million years.
so in a few million years we just go back to oil. (not really, if were even still around)
Hey maybe through this they'll create flubber!
This is exciting! Plastics get to survive peak oil!
Technology > Humain Problems...
Brilliant! One process could replace production methods for a number of products that normally derive their components from petroleum, and it's done very cleanly, with no toxic byproducts.
Now let's hope they hire someone who knows the right people to pitch this tech to.
this is the kind of thing that is gunna get blocked by the oil industry never to see the light of day
What "sugar compounds"? I'm a diabetic and I use xylitol, erythritol, tagatose, and trehalose. Any new technology making these good-tasting, diabetic-friendly sugar alternatives less expensive (because they're several times more expensive than sugar) would be a big deal for me.
Oh, alkyl glucosides and levoglucosan. Interesting. I think I'll ask the authors if they've thought of other applications.