Groundbreaking discovery will enable production of renewable materials from trees and corn

A team led by University of Minnesota Twin Cities researchers has developed a breakthrough new catalyst technology that converts renewable materials like trees and corn into the 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 the production of renewable chemicals.

The new catalyst formulation converts corn-derived lactic acid-based chemicals into acrylic acid and acrylates with the highest yields yet. Compared to other classes of leading catalysts, the technology shows a significantly higher performance.

The research results are online Journal of the American Chemical Society Gold(JACS Au), a leading open access journal of the American Chemical Society.

The research team was supported by the US National Science Foundation through the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers, a multi-university team dedicated to transforming the way plastics are made, removed and remade through innovative research change.

The public is most familiar with acrylic acid and related acrylates because they are used in everyday items such as paints and coatings, adhesives, and superabsorbent materials in diapers. These chemicals and materials were made from fossil fuels in the last century. But in recent decades, the corn industry has expanded beyond the production of food and animal feed to the production of useful chemicals. One such corn-derived chemical is sustainable lactic acid, a key ingredient in the production of renewable and compostable plastic used in many everyday applications.

Lactic acid can also be converted into acrylic acid and acrylates with the help of catalysts. However, until this new catalyst discovery, conventional catalysts were very inefficient and gave only low yields, making the whole process too expensive.

“Our newly discovered catalyst formulation achieves the highest yield of acrylic acid from lactic acid to date,” said Paul Dauenhauer, professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota. “We have compared the performance of our new catalyst to all previous catalysts and the performance far surpasses all previous examples.”

The new catalyst formulation significantly reduces the cost of producing renewable acrylic acid and acrylates from corn by improving yield and reducing waste. As a result, the price of renewable acrylic acid could fall below the price of chemicals made from fossil raw materials for the first time.

The commercial opportunities presented by the new catalyst will be exploited by Låkril Technologies, a start-up aiming to produce low-cost renewable acrylic acid and acrylates. By licensing the catalyst technology from the University of Minnesota, Låkril Technologies will take the technology beyond the lab.

The chemical industry has relied on a class of catalysts called zeolites for half a century,” says Dr. Chris Nicholas, CEO of Lakril Technologies. “Because the new catalyst discovery is based on a zeolite formulation that is already widely available, our new process for producing acrylic acid and acrylates will achieve low cost with low risk.”

Chicago-based Låkril Technologies has already secured $1.4 million in upfront funding to scale up the process. The Iowa Corn Growers Association led the funding, which also included participation from the Kentucky Corn Growers Association, as well as grants from the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council, the Indiana Corn Marketing Council, the Corn Marketing Council of Michigan, and SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) of the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Energy.

At the University of Minnesota, the research team plans to continue their basic research into catalyst design to understand the fundamental aspects of the chemistry, with funding from the Center for Sustainable Polymers, based at the University of Minnesota.

“This is a wonderful example of how addressing important fundamental research questions that lie at the core of fundamental catalysis can lead to innovative new processes that represent real technological promise,” said Marc Hillmyer, Director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers and Professor in the Chemistry Department at the University of Minnesota. “A major challenge for the Center for Sustainable Polymers is the efficient and sustainable conversion of biomass into polymer components, and this work represents a breakthrough solution to this challenge that will have lasting impact.”

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