June 29, 2006
Better Living Through Chemistry: The "Fruitchemical" Industry
Robert Service reports in Science on research reported by chemical engineer James Dumesic and colleagues on a new process for turning fructose, the sugar in fruit, into a compound called 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which can replace key petroleum-derived chemical building blocks. Science report on HMF process
Unlike previous schemes for turning sugar into HMF, the new process is efficient, easy, and potentially low cost. "It looks real good to me," says Thomas Zawodzinski, a chemical engineer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. "This is the direction things need to go in."
The changes doubled the percentage of fructose that gets converted into HMF, to 85%. With that boost and related improvements, "now you can make some pretty compelling arguments" for producing HMF commercially, says Todd Werpy, an expert on producing bio-derived chemicals at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. Producing commodity chemicals from renewable feedstocks "is really in its infancy," Werpy says. But with top research groups now training their sights on the problem, he adds, "renewables could make a major contribution to the chemical needs in the United States."
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