21 September 2011

Producing the bulk chemicals styrene and acrylic acid from plant materials

BASF, GreenICT, Synbra and DSM – are working together with Wageningen University and the research institute Wageningen UR

Researchers from four companies – BASF, GreenICT, Synbra and DSM – are working together with Wageningen University and the research institute Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research to develop processes that will, for the first time, produce the bulk chemicals styrene and acrylic acid from plant materials. This ACTION project is part of the Biobased Performance Materials programme that focuses on green building blocks and materials for a Biobased Economy.

Styrene and acrylates are two of the most widely used types of bulk chemicals in the world, and they are presently being produced from fossil sources. These chemical building blocks are, in turn, used to produce coatings, optical fibres, plexiglass, glues, plastics etc. In the research project, ‘Acrylic and Styrenic Monomers and Polymers from Biomass’ (ACTION), these bulk chemicals are produced using plant-based sugars and protein-rich residual biomass, which are released during the production of biofuels. “Based on our patent and the scientific literature, we think we will be able to produce these compounds from biomass. All the necessary process steps have not yet been carried out in the right order, but that is what we now intend to do,” explains Jérôme Le Nôtre, project manager of the ACTION project.

Residual biomass is a byproduct of the production of biofuel, which is a green alternative for fossil fuel. This residual biomass is cheap and contains up to 35% protein after the production of biofuel. These proteins are converted into styrene and acrylates via a two-step process involving an enzymatic and a catalytic reaction. A second research theme is the production of acrylic acid from sugars via fermentation, combined with a catalytic reaction. Researchers are working on optimising these processes and scaling up the production of styrene and acrylic acid from biomass. These green chemical building blocks can then be used to produce optical fibres and polystyrene, a plastic which is also used as insulation material.

Biobased Performance Materials Programme
In the ‘Biobased Performance Materials’ (BPM) programme, knowledge centres and companies are working together on new biopolymers and on applied research aimed at improving the properties of existing bioplastics. This will put these biobased materials in a better position to compete with existing plastics based on fossil fuels, in terms of both material properties and price. Bioplastics can be used in items including: plastic bottles, household appliances, components for trains, aeroplanes and cars, computer casings, paint, carpets and packaging materials. The programme is being coordinated by Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research and is partially funded by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation.

Source: Wageningen UR, press release, 2011-09-21.

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