University chemistry professor Walter Trahanovsky has found an unexpected way to make biomass big business.
Trahanovsky is a chemist by training and by passion, and wasn’t looking for anything out of the ordinary when he decided to try and create sugar derivatives from biomasses using high-temperature chemistry – the best kind of chemistry, except of course for the kind that sears off your eyebrows.We can’t all be that cool.The intelligent Iowanian started by mixing biomass and alcohol – a shooter we hope never makes it to the bar in any form – and then heated up and put it under a butt-load of pressure. Appropriate, no?
Sure, he found the sugars he was looking for, but he also got a surprise he wasn’t expecting – and not the kind that typically results when one combines biomass and pressure. In addition to the sugar derivatives that were desired and expected, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy revealed the presence of two other things both unexpected and valuable - ethylene glycol and propylene glycol.
The team had never considered that such poop pressure and hot biomass heat would yield such results, but were pleasantly surprised at the outcome. Both chemicals have a significant amount of value – ethylene glycol is used in antifreeze and plastics, and propylene glycol is a food and cosmetic additive as well as a solvent.
Just don’t mix them up – a face-solvent would be unpleasant.
While there are other methods to turn waste into wonder, they typically involve the use of harsh acids or compounds that are almost equally expensive as the ones being produced. In addition, these refuse to riches processes leave behind chemical wastes that are of the “these are totally useless” variety that have to be safely disposed of.
Chemical Biomass Conversion: The Men, The Myth, The Machine.The way the process works is by using “supercritical fluids” – fluids that get the heat until they can stand it no longer and their liquid and gas states merge into one sexy beast. This in turn generates the profitable chemicals detected by Trahanovsky and his crew.
In addition to the ease and cheapness of the process, it can also be done even with “impure” biomass. We’re not sure what the cutoff is for poop to be “pure”, but hey, whatever works.
Cheap and effective are words that scientists and research funders alike love to hear when it comes to chemical processes, and they get even more excited when they discover that the end products are not only useful but high in value.
Source: Iowa State University