Processing Magazine

Researchers aim to shift chemical industry toward sustainability

November 15, 2012

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — A team of researchers from the University of Washington at St. Louis, University of California at Santa Barbara, Davis and San Diego are collaborating to develop new sustainable feedstocks for the chemical industry.SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — A team of researchers from the University of Washington at St. Louis, University of California at Santa Barbara, Davis and San Diego are collaborating to develop new sustainable feedstocks for the chemical industry.

The scientists established the Center for the Sustainable Use of Renewable Feedstocks (CenSURF) on UC Santa Barbara’s campus to pool their experience and ideas.

The center will receive $1.75 million over three years from the National Science Foundation (NSF). UC Santa Barbara’s proposal was one of only three funded from about 50 submitted in response to NSF''s national call for centers for chemical innovation focused on the development of clean, safe and economical alternatives to traditional chemical products and practices.

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"My goal is to go after the projects that will take the combined intellectual talent and experience that we have in this group, and appeal to their idealism –– to take a chance and see if we can make a real impact," said Peter C. Ford, principal investigator of the new center and professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

One part of the center''s research will focus on carbon dioxide as a feedstock, instead of a non-renewable resource such as petroleum. "You would probably not use carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere because it is too dilute, but you would take it from fixed sources," said Ford. "Carbon dioxide is produced in large quantities at power plants, and that''s a fixed location source. We want to try to capture some of that and utilize it."

Producing organic compounds like ethylene from carbon dioxide by using electrochemistry will require energy, said Ford, adding that sustainability will not be achieved if fossil fuels are used. So, the research team promotes the use of solar-based electricity to convert carbon dioxide to a reduced form such as ethylene.

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The second project will focus on biomass from plants. Plants form complex organic materials, and their chemical use is still in its infancy. Biomass is produced by photosynthesis, which uses light and water to convert carbon dioxide into various materials. Of particular interest to CenSURF researchers is non-food biomass, such as forest and agricultural waste.

"The real challenge will be the conversion of lignocellulose — a combination of the non-digestible biopolymers cellulose and lignin — to usable chemicals," said Ford. "It''s fair to say that cellulose is the most plentiful biopolymer on the planet, and lignin is the second most plentiful. Lignin is a particularly tough challenge, because it''s a very complex material. Part of our goal here is developing methodologies for converting lignin to simpler chemicals as starting points for the chemical industry to use."

The center will use catalysts that are based on Earth-abundant elements, avoiding rare elements such as platinum. Ford explained that rare elements add to cost, but more importantly, the use of these prevents future generations from using them, since they cannot be replaced. He said that the definition of sustainable chemistry is using resources at a rate at which they can be replaced naturally.