New nano-catalyst could be biggest bioplastic breakthrough in three decades

13th Mar 2012

A new nano-catalyst being developed by chemical giants Dow could help the company commercialise a process for making traditional plastics from biomass, according to research published in the journal Science.

The new catalyst is made of tiny spheres of iron and could significantly increase the efficiency of converting synthesis gas to lower olefins.

Lower olefins are the key building blocks for manufacturing plastics, cosmetics and even pharmaceuticals. Traditionally, these molecules are produced by cracking crude oil-derived naphtha, but there is a pressing need to find alternative feedstocks and processes because of supply limitations and environmental issues.

Dr Adrian Higson, Head of Biorefining at NNFCC, said: "This breakthrough could increase the opportunities for processing biomass into bio-based products and provide an alternative to the current focus on carbohydrate or synthesis gas fermentation to alcohols and their dehydration to olefins.

The new process is particularly useful as it can be used to convert lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks, like agricultural waste, into plastic at low cost. Dow have said they will use the catalyst to manufacture bio-based polyethylene.

Bio-based polyethylene is identical to polyethylene made from petrochemicals, meaning packaging converters and suppliers would be able to make more sustainable plastics without having to change their processes.

The technology to convert synthesis gas to olefins has existed for many years but current catalysts - used since the mid-1970's - show poor selectivity towards lower olefins and large amounts of unwanted methane are produced as a byproduct.

The new, improved iron-based catalyst yielded about 50 per cent more lower olefins than conventional catalysts.

Krijn de Jong, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis at The University of Utrecht, who worked with Dow on the development of the nano-catalyst said: "Until recently, there were too many steps involved in the process, so the technology was not efficient or economical enough to be used on a large scale."

Dow say they are still refining the process further and commercial production could yet be 5 to 10 years away.

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