A Swedish research team has received the green light and the greenbacks to conduct a new study. The team will be looking for a new way to take the waste produced by the biodiesel production process and turn it into useful materials, an article in Chalmers Chemistry and Chemical Engineering News stated.
The concept of green chemistry calls for chemical products and processes that result in fewer or even zero hazardous products. This calls for alternative sources of raw materials and new means of manufacture, both of which must be sustainable in the long run.
The fuel industry is not the only one that has to worry about making the jump to renewable resources. The chemical industry also has to learn to let go of fossil fuels, which have provided the raw materials for many important chemical processes over the decades.
Petroleum-based molecules are the backbone of numerous additives, materials, pharmaceuticals, and consumer products. But as resources grow scarcer and more consumers look for healthier or more environmentally-friendly products, sustainable substitutes for the fossil fuel-derived molecules must be found. (Related: Researchers develop a fuel cell from lignin, a byproduct of paper manufacturing.)
To achieve this, the Swedish Research Council and the Swedish Research Council Formas have given research grants to a team headed by Nina Kann of the Chalmers University of Technology (CUT). The researchers are tasked to come up with sustainable techniques that can produce important commercial chemicals from renewable sources of raw materials.
Kann is a professor at the university’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. She and graduate student Anna Said Stalsmeden are the primary members of the Formas project.
The CUT researchers have set their sights on the waste produced by the biodiesel production process. They believe these discarded byproducts could be used as precursor materials, the most basic ingredients for building more complex chemical compounds.
One such byproduct is glycerol. This is a naturally-occurring liquid that makes up lipids such as fat. Glycerol serves as a humectant, sweetener, and an ingredient in pharmaceuticals.
Furthermore, any process developed by the CUT team must not just be limited to a single byproduct. A method that works on glycerol must also be able to do the same for other biomass-derived molecules.
“As oil and other fossil sources diminish, we cannot expect nature to directly provide us with the molecules or chemicals we need in terms of drugs or bulk chemicals,” Kann said.
For the Formas project, the CUT researchers will work on lignin. A tough and natural material that makes up a significant percentage of wood, lignin is often discarded during production processes for biodiesel, paper, and other wood-derived products.
Lignin also contains aromatic molecules. Kann and Stalsmeden will look for a way to draw out these raw molecules from their source and turn them into more complex molecules that can be used in the pharmaceutical industry.
They intend to use enzymes for the catalytic process and mediate the reactions using iron. If successful, their methods could be used to produce intermediate molecules that the chemical industry mainly processes from petroleum and other fossil fuels.
Kann explained that the conversion process must be very efficient at turning the raw materials into useful products. Furthermore, her team must make sure that their method follows the principles of green chemistry, such as reducing the negative impact on the environment, using minimum amounts of energy, and using sustainable chemicals.
To find out more about methods of converting the byproducts of biodiesel into useful chemical compounds, visit Discoveries.news.