A new, cost-effective way has been devised to produce a precursor of plastic out of sugar, scientists reported on Thursday.
At the moment, petroleum is the key ingredient for plastic production, but scientists around the world are racing to find new sources as the oil supplies dwindle and the price soars.
The sugar-based hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), could be further converted into not only plastic, but also diesel fuel, said a research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The breakthrough appeared in the June 30 edition of the journal Science. The new, patent-pending method for making HMF was a balancing act of chemistry, pressure, temperature and reactor design, according to the team.
The researchers dehydrated fructose, the fruit sugar, with an acid catalyst in a two-phase reactor system, and added dimethylsulfoxide to suppress side reactions. Then the HMF product was continuously extracted.
Once made, it is fairly easy to convert into plastics or diesel fuel.
The process yields 80 percent HMF when 90 percent of the fructose is converted, which may make it a cost effective method for industrial plastic production, said James Dumesic, a chemical and biological engineering professor who led the study.
With this process, the U.S. chemical industry could acquire raw material from domestic agriculture instead of buying petroleum from abroad, he said.
"Trying to understand how to use catalytic processes to make chemicals and fuel from biomass is a growing area," Dumesic said.