United States. The new technology is also highly efficient, meaning lower costs for manufacturing renewable chemicals.
A team led by researchers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities invents an innovative new catalyst technology that converts renewable materials like trees and corn into key chemicals, acrylic acid, and acrylates used in paints, coatings, and superabsorbent polymers.
The new catalyst technology is also highly efficient, which means lower costs for manufacturing renewable chemicals.
The research team was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation through the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers, a collaborative team of several universities with a mission to transform the way plastics are made, broken down, and remade through groundbreaking research.
The new catalyst formulation converts corn-derived lactic acid-based chemicals into acrylic acid and acrylates with the highest yield achieved to date. The technology exhibits substantially higher performance when compared to other classes of leading catalysts.
The public is more familiar with acrylic acid and associated acrylates through its uses in everyday items; from paints and coatings to sticky adhesives and superabsorbent materials used in diapers. These chemicals and materials have been manufactured over the last century from fossil fuels.
But, in recent decades, the corn industry has been growing to expand beyond feed and livestock feed to make useful chemicals.
One such corn-derived chemical is sustainable lactic acid, a key ingredient in the manufacture of renewable and compostable plastic that is used in many everyday applications.
Lactic acid can also be converted into acrylic acid and acrylates using catalysts. However, until the discovery of this new catalyst, traditional catalysts were very inefficient, achieved low yields and made the overall process too expensive.
"Our new catalyst formulation discovery achieves the highest yield to date of acrylic acid from lactic acid," said Paul Dauenhauer, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota.
"We compared the performance of our new catalyst with all previous catalysts, and the performance far exceeds previous examples," Dauenhauer said.
The new catalyst formulation substantially reduces the manufacturing cost of renewable acrylic acid and corn acrylates by improving yield and reducing waste. For the first time, this could reduce the price of renewable acrylic acid below fossil-derived chemicals.
The economic opportunity generated by the new catalyst is being seized by Lakril Technologies, a start-up that aims to manufacture low-cost acrylates and renewable acrylic acid.
By licensing catalyst technology from the University of Minnesota, Lakril Technologies will develop the technology beyond the lab.