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

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-10-35-31-pm

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.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-10-35-48-pm

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.

References:

  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.
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