When John Wesley Hyatt patented the first industrial plastic in 1869, his intention was to create an alternative to the elephant tusk ivory used to make piano keys. But this early plastic also sparked a revolution in the way people thought about manufacturing: What if we weren't limited to the materials nature had to offer?
Over a century later, plastics are an abundant part of daily life. But these plastics are often derived from petroleum, contributing to reliance on fossil fuels and driving harmful greenhouse gas emissions. To change that, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) scientists are trying to take the pliable nature of plastic in another direction, developing new and renewable ways of creating plastics from biomass.
Using a plant-derived solvent called GVL (gamma-Valerolactone), University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James Dumesic and his team have developed an economical and high-yielding way of producing furandicarboxylic acid, or FDCA. One of 12 chemicals the U.S. Department of Energy calls critical to forging a "green" chemical industry, FDCA is a necessary precursor to a renewable plastic called PEF (or polyethylene furanoate) as well as to a number of polyesters and polyurethanes.
The researchers published their findings Jan. 19, 2018 in the journal Science Advances.
As the bio-based substitute for PET (polyethylene terephthalate) its widely used, petroleum-derived counterpart PEF is rich in potential. PET currently has a market demand of close to 1.5 billion tons per year, and Coca-Cola, Ford Motors, H.J. Heinz, Nike and Procter & Gamble have all committed to developing a sustainably sourced, 100 percent plant-based PET for their bottles, packaging, apparel and footwear. PEF's potential to break into that sizeable market, however, has been hampered by the high cost of producing FDCA.