Turning Sugars Into Plastics

New catalysts convert glucose into a valuable chemical feedstock that can replace petroleum.

Published: 19-Jun-2007

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have come up with an easy, inexpensive method to directly convert glucose into a chemical that can be used to make polyester and other plastics, industrial chemicals, and even fuels.

Petroleum is commonly used to make plastics and various chemical products, such as fertilizers and solvents. But researchers are trying to find a simple and affordable way to convert the sugars, including glucose and fructose, in plants into compounds that can replace petroleum feedstocks. If successful, such technology could use a chemical made from corn, potatoes, and even grass to substitute for ones derived from oil.

While previous studies have shown various ways to chemically convert fructose and glucose into plastic intermediates and even fuels, these conversion processes are complicated and costly, and are only efficient for converting fructose. Glucose is a much more common sugar because it can be derived directly from starch and cellulose, both plentiful in plant material. "The major bottleneck has been to utilize nature's most abundant building block, which is glucose," says Z. Conrad Zhang, a scientist at PNL's Institute for Interfacial Catalysis, who led the work.

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