New catalyst technology turns corn into chemicals

A team led by researchers at the University of Minnesota has invented a ground-breaking new catalyst technology that can convert renewable materials like corn into acrylic acid and acrylates, key chemicals used in the manufacture of paints, coatings and superabsorbent polymers. This new catalyst technology converts lactic-acid-based chemicals derived from corn into acrylic acid and acrylates with the highest yield achieved to date. When benchmarked against other classes of leading catalysts, the technology exhibits a substantially higher performance. The research team reports this new catalyst technology in a paper in JACS Au. Its work was supported by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) through the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers, a multi-university collaborative team with a mission to transform how plastics are made, unmade and remade through innovative research. Acrylic acid and the associated acrylates are used in a wide range of everyday items, from paints and coatings to sticky adhesives and the superabsorbent materials used in diapers. For the past century, acrylic acid and acrylates have been made from fossil fuels. But in the past few decades, the corn industry has expanded beyond food and livestock feed to start manufacturing useful chemicals. One such corn-derived chemical is sustainable lactic acid, a key ingredient in the manufacture of polylactic acid (PLA), a renewable and compostable plastic used in many everyday applications. Lactic acid can also be converted into acrylic acid and acrylates using catalysts. Traditional catalysts are very inefficient at doing this, however, only achieving low yields and thus making the overall process too expensive. “Our new catalyst formulation discovery achieves the highest yield to date of acrylic acid from lactic acid,” said Paul Dauenhauer, professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. “We benchmarked the performance of our new catalyst to all prior catalysts, and the performance far exceeds previous examples.” The new catalyst formulation substantially reduces the cost of manufacturing renewable acrylic acid and acrylates from corn by improving yield and reducing waste. For the first time, this could reduce the price of renewable acrylic acid below fossil-derived chemicals. The economic opportunity generated by this new catalyst is already being pursued by Låkril Technologies, a Chicago-based start-up company that aims to manufacture low-cost renewable acrylic acid and acrylates. By licensing the catalyst technology from the University of Minnesota, Låkril Technologies will develop the technology beyond the laboratory. “Chemical manufacturing has relied on a class of catalysts called ‘zeolites’ for half a century,” says Chris Nicholas, CEO of Låkril Technologies. “Because the new catalyst discovery is based on a zeolite formulation already available at scale, our new process to make acrylic acid and acrylates will achieve low cost with low risk.” Låkril Technologies has already received $1.4 million in pre-seed financing to scale the process. At the University of Minnesota, the research team plans to continue its basic research on catalyst design to better understand the fundamental aspects of the chemistry. It will continue to receive financial support from the Center for Sustainable Polymers, which is headquartered at the University of Minnesota. “This is a wonderful example of how addressing important basic research questions that are at the heart of fundamental catalysis can lead to innovative new processes that have true technological promise,” said Marc Hillmyer, director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers and a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Chemistry. “A grand challenge in the Center for Sustainable Polymers is the efficient and sustainable conversion of biomass to polymer ingredients, and this work represents a ground-breaking solution to that challenge that will have lasting impact.” This story is adapted from material from the University of Minnesota, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.