Green Chemistry Principle #7: Use of Renewable Feedstocks

By Trevor Janes, Member-at-Large for the GCI

7. A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable.

In Video #7, Yuchan and Ian help us understand what a raw material or feedstock is, and why we need to choose feedstocks which are renewable.

They use CO2 as an example of a feedstock which plants convert into sugar via photosynthesis. We humans use this sugar as our own feedstock for many different delicious things, including cookies! Yuchan and Ian explain that for a feedstock to be renewable, it must be able to be replenished on a human timescale, whereas depleting feedstocks take much longer to be replenished, and are being used up at a faster rate by human activity.

Many common feedstocks are depleting, such as petroleum and natural gas. The petrochemical industry uses petroleum and natural gas as feedstocks to make intermediates, which are later converted to final products that people use, such as plastics, paints, pharmaceuticals, and many others.

An example of a renewable feedstock is biomass, which refers to any material derived from living organisms, usually plants. In contrast to depleting feedstocks like petroleum, we can much more easily grow new plants once we use them up, and maintain a continuous supply. If we can use bio-based chemicals to do the same tasks that we currently accomplish using petrochemicals, we move closer to the goal of having a steady, reliable supply of resources for the future.

Existing chemical technology has developed based on using readily available petroleum as feedstock to make a majority of chemicals and end products. However, the chemical technology that enables conversion from biomass into bio-based chemicals into final products people use is not yet as well developed.1 Chemical scientists with various specializations are currently involved in improving our ability to use biomass.2, 3

So, how can we implement the principle of renewable feedstocks on a day-to-day basis? Yuchan and Ian illustrate principle 7 through their choice of solvent. As we explore in the video for principle #5, we choose a solvent for a particular purpose based on properties such as boiling point, polarity, and overall impact on health and the environment. One more aspect to consider is that we can choose to use a solvent based on is its renewability. Tetrahydrofuran (THF) is a useful ether solvent, but it is synthesized industrially from petrochemicals (see below for synthesis), so it isn’t renewable. A close relative of THF is 2-methyl THF. Its structure and properties are very similar to those of THF, but the difference is that 2-methyl THF can be synthesized from bio-based chemicals which are made from renewable feedstocks. So when we substitute 2-methyl THF in for THF, we are putting principle 7 into action.

Synthesis of THF4 vs. synthesis of 2-methyl THF5


The synthesis of THF.

An early step in the industrial production of THF involves reaction of formaldehyde with acetylene to make 2-butyne-1,4-diol. This intermediate is hydrogenated and cyclised in two more steps to yield THF. The acetylene input is derived from fossil fuels, which again are non-renewable.


The synthesis of 2-methyl THF.

An alternative to THF is 2-methyltetrahydrofuran, which has a very similar structure to THF.  It can be synthesized starting from biomass; after conversion to C5 and C6 sugars and subsequent acid-catalyzed steps, the intermediate levulinic acid can be hydrogenated to yield 2-methyl THF.


  1. “Renewable Feedstocks for the Production of Chemicals” Bozell, J. J. ACS Fuels Preprints 1999, 44 (2), 204-209.
  2. “Conversion of Biomass into Chemicals over Metal Catalysts” Besson, M.; Gallezot, P.; Pinel, C. Chem. Rev. 2014, 114 (3), 1827-1870.
  3. “Transformation of Biomass into Commodity Chemicals Using Enzymes or Cells” Straathof, A. J. J. Chem. Rev., 2014, 114 (3), 1871-1908.
  4. “Tetrahydrofuran” Müller, H. in Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry 2002, 36, 47-54.Wiley-VCH, Weinheim. doi:10.1002/14356007.a26_221
  5. “Synthesis of 2-Methyl Tetrahydrofuran from Various Lignocellulosic Feedstocks: Sustainability Assessment via LCA” Khoo, H. H.; Wong, L. L.; Tan, J.; Isoni, V.; Sharratt, P. Resour. Conserv. Recy. 2015, 95, 174.
Green Polymer Chemistry: Approaches, Challenges, Opportunity

Green Polymer Chemistry: Approaches, Challenges, Opportunity

By Hyungjun Cho, Member-at-large for the GCI

I was recently inspired by an episode of podcast by NPR’s Planet Money called Oil #4: How Oil Got Into Everything. It told the story of Leo Baekeland’s invention of Bakelite, which is the plastic that made many commodities affordable for the masses.

Plastic is made of polymers, and many of the common items we use are made from one or more of these polymers. Examples of these polymers are polystyrene, polymethylmethacrylate, and polyethylene and some examples of common items that contain these polymers are Styrofoam™, Plexiglas®, and plastic bags, respectively. Polymers are synthesized by forming bonds between many molecules of same structure, called monomers.

Conventionally, these monomers are produced from chemicals derived from oil, which is a non-renewable feedstock. Environmentally conscious scientists have been trying to make polymers in a more eco-friendly way. The biggest challenge lies in how we obtain monomers from renewable sources.

There are two main approaches to this challenge. The first approach is to produce currently used monomers, such as styrene, from a renewable source. A literature review by Hernandez et al.1 called this approach bioreplacement. The biggest progress in this


Figure 1. Engineered metabolic pathway to produce styrene from glucose. (1)

approach has been made by engineering the metabolic pathways of bacteria cultures. McKenna et al. 3 have been able to feed glucose to engineered E. coli to produce styrene and release it in the culture medium they are incubating in. The E. coli flask cultures were able to produce styrene to reach concentrations of up to 260 mg/L1,3. Figure 1 shows the metabolic pathway from glucose to styrene.

While this method of producing monomers is promising, there are road blocks that are hindering progress. The biggest issue is toxicity of styrene to the E. coli, which limits the maximum concentration of styrene in the bacterial culture (E. coli can only tolerate up to 300 mg/L styrene1,3). Other challenges that exist with using bacteria include long incubation times, obtaining poor yield of desired product relative to amount of glucose added, and scale up. Looking down the road, these kinds of limitations may prevent this method from being economically and practically viable.

The second approach is called bioadvantage. Polymer chemists take chemicals that are already being produced from renewable feedstock, synthesize polymers, and use said polymers to produce polymer products in hopes of replacing already existing polymer materials. There are many molecules that are being studied for this purpose such as cellulose, starch, anethole, methylene-butyrolactone, and myrcene.


Figure 2. Conventional monomers (styrene, methylmethacrylate, ethylene) and their potentially renewable counterparts. Renewable counterpart monomers tend to be structural analogues of conventional monomers.

During the podcast by Planet Money, research by the Hillmyer group from University of Minnesota was featured. They aim to synthesize eco-friendly polymer using monomers from renewable feedstock (the bioadvantage method). After many failures to produce viable polymer from corn, coconut, orange peels, etc., they were able to develop a polymer synthesized from a menthol derivative obtained from peppermint2.

A critical challenge to bioadvantage polymers is the need for years of study and passing a battery of regulatory tests before they are adopted. The petroleum based polymers that are being used today already have been researched for decades, which allows them to be used easily by industry. By extension, bioadvantage polymers will need to match or exceed their performance in terms of strength, durability, flexibility, and other properties we require from our plastic. Even when industry is willing to allocate resources to adopt eco-friendly polymers, sometimes it’s the consumers that prove to be even less accommodating. We observed this with the biodegradable bag fiasco by Sun Chips.

It should be mentioned that both bioreplacement and bioadvantage polymers are not necessarily biodegradable. Therefore, we should not call them green polymers.

I will conclude with this: I see the impact that plastic has on our daily lives and I see demand for polymers. Being able to make eco-friendly polymers economically will change the world around you, literally. As Planet Money teaches, the world works in a supply-demand swing. When the kinks in the supply side of eco-friendly polymers are fixed, demand for them will present itself. How soon eco-friendly plastics will develop will depend on us. As green chemists, we should see that the biggest impact we might have in the future, will be making eco-friendly polymers.


(1)   Hernández, N.; Williams, R. C.; Cochran, E. W. Org. Biomol. Chem., 2014,12, 2834-2849

(2)   Hillmyer, M. A.; Tolman, W. B. Acc. Chem. Res., 201447 (8), pp 2390–2396

(3)   Mckenna, R.; Nielsen, D. R. Metab. Eng. 2011, 13 (5), 544–554.

UofT Demonstrates its Commitment to Sustainable Chemistry

“We’re very pleased and proud to announce that the Chemistry Department has recently joined the Green Chemistry Commitment (GCC)!” – Dr. Andy Dicks, University of Toronto, Associate Professor


GCI Members Fall 2016

The University of Toronto has recently signed the GCC making us the first school outside of the United States to sign onto this impactful commitment, which now contains 33 colleges and universities. The GCC is overseen by Beyond Benign, a United States not-for-profit organization created by Dr. Amy Cannon and Dr. John Warner, a founder of the principles of green chemistry. Within the GCC, academic institutions collaborate to share resources and know-how in order to positively impact how the next generation of scientists are educated about sustainability issues. Participating departments commit to green chemistry instruction as a core teaching mandate. The aim is to provide undergraduates and graduates with the required understanding to make green chemistry become standard practice in laboratories around the world. This, in turn, ensures that when graduates of the university enter the workforce, they are armed with the knowledge of how to make molecules and processes more sustainable and less toxic by adhering to the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry.

The GCC unites the green chemistry community around shared goals and a common vision to grow departmental resources to allow a facile integration of green chemistry into the undergraduate laboratories as well as to improve connections with industry which creates job opportunities for sustainability-minded graduates. Their website offers many resources for those interested in reading actual case studies and laboratory exercises, so please click here to visit their website and be informed!

Our chemistry department has already improved the green chemistry content in our undergraduate laboratories by updating the first year courses and upper year synthetic chemistry courses to include various graded questions about the Twelve Principles as well as ensuring the undergraduates are thinking about how they could make their current lab protocols more sustainable. Additionally, students can choose to study the fate of chemicals in our environmental chemistry courses offered. Of course there’s always room to improve, so the Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI), in collaboration with Dr. Andy Dicks, is working on evaluating the undergraduate chemistry curriculum’s current focus on sustainable chemistry and toxicology, in hopes to further improve our undergraduate’s learning experience. The GCI also provides many educational opportunities to department members such as our Seminar Series as well as many outreach opportunities, making our group a driving force in the integration of green chemistry principles to the department. Lastly, the University of Toronto chemistry courses reach thousands of students a year, and by being the first Canadian university to sign this commitment, we are working towards a greener future in Canada!

Thank you for celebrating this very momentous achievement with us!
Karl Demmans, Ian Mallov, Shira Joudan, and Laura Reyes