Can you make water bottles and clothes from biomass?

Iowa State University researchers developed a way to make chemicals from biomass, offering a possible alternative to petroleum-based products. Will more environmentally friendly and less toxic products make their way into our homes?
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Walter Trahanovsky, the enthusiastic, pink-shirted chemist, is standing next to a machine that might change the way we make stuff.

Everything from water bottles to cosmetics is made from petroleum. In 2006, Americans bought 31.2 billion liters of bottled water. To make the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, about a million tons of plastic was produced from natural gas and petroleum.

However, Trahanovsky, an Iowa State University researcher, discovered an alternative way to make commercial products — by taking biomass and sending it into a high pressure and high temperature chamber.

Normally, it's hard to get cellulose out of glucose, so you need enzymes and strong acids. Instead, the Iowa chemist figured out how to change the heating conditions to attack the cellulose without needing any extra chemical assistance.

He actually didn't expect the process to spit out ethylene glycol and propylene glycol.

The fact that the system can turn ordinary wood chips into ethylene glycol and propylene glycol is potentially game changing. The chemicals might not be familiar to you, but you definitely own products made from them.

For instance, ethylene glycol is used in water bottles and clothing materials. Propylene glycol is non-toxic and is added to salad dressing as a thickening agent. It's also used in cosmetics like lipstick. Ideally, propylene glycol could replace ethylene glycol as a greener antifreeze.

So far, he's getting about a 30 percent yield of glucose derivatives and 30 percent of ethylene glycol and propylene glycol. Trahanovsky is working on improving the chemical process to improve the yields of ethylene glycol and propylene glycol.

In the meantime, he hopes industry giants find a way to scale up his process.

In related news, University of California Berkeley researchers previously figured out how to remove oxygen from biomass.

If similar chemical discoveries ever get some industrial love, then plastics and other petrochemical products could be made from biomass and offer an environmentally and renewable alternative.

As I mentioned yesterday, Cereplast is trying to green the world by creating compostable resin that can be used in a line of bioplastics: yogurt containers, cutlery, and more.

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Photo by Bob Elbert via Iowa State University

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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