Nanotech helps make plastics without oil

Iron particles on carbon nanotube

Iron particles on carbon nanotube

Nearly all chemical products ranging from antifreeze and medicine to plastics and paint are currently made from petroleum.

But since it became apparent that the petroleum supply was not as reliable and unending as many had hoped, several techniques have been developed to make chemicals out of biomass.

A promising development for the environment one would say, but unfortunately those techniques have proven to be complicated, lengthy, inefficient and thus expensive. Because of this biobased chemicals have not really been able to compete with the current petroleum-based chemicals. But a new find by researchers of Utrecht University, the Netherlands may change this.

Nanoparticles on nanofibres

In cooperation with the Technical university of Delft and chemical giant Dow Benelux, they developed a way to efficiently transform woody biomass like prunings into lower olefins, the key building blocks for the manufacture of for instance plastics, cosmetics and drugs. They presented their results in today’s edition of Science.

To achieve this the research team has developed a new catalyst made of iron nanoparticles that are dispersed on carbon nanofibers or a nano variant of aluminium called α-alumina. Binding the iron particles to these materials stabilises them, making them more durable and reusable. This catalyst turns carbon monoxide and hydrogen that are released by semi burning biomass into lower olefins.

As efficient as petrochemical methods

For every kilo of plastic about 1.5 to 2 times as much biomass is needed. Which isn’t bad at all compared to petroleum-based production. Manufacturing a kilo of polystyrene for example requires 1.78 kilos of petroleum. This makes the new techniques about as effective as many of the techniques used in the petrochemical industry.

Many advantages and just one drawback

Besides being more efficient and thus cheaper than most other biobased methods, the new technique has more advantages. First of all, it is made of woody biomass, which means it does not compete with food supply.

The second and perhaps greatest advantage, at least for the chemical industry, is that despite the difference in starting material the end products are exactly the same and as versatile as those produced from petroleum.

So that makes the new method reliable, versatile and cheap. In other words a very promising candidate to enable the replacement of the 919.181.894 liters (242.822.167 gallons) of petroleum that are currently used yearly for chemical production. No wonder the chemical industry is interested. One drawback though: it will take a couple of years to build or transform a factory that can use the technique.

© Jorn van Dooren |

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