Using a plant-derived solvent called GVL (gamma-Valerolactone), University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James Dumesic and his team have developed an economical and high-yielding way of producing furandicarboxylic acid, or FDCA. One of 12 chemicals the U.S. Department of Energy calls critical to forging a “green” chemical industry, FDCA is a necessary precursor to a renewable plastic called PEF (or polyethylene furanoate) as well as to a number of polyesters and polyurethanes.
“Until now, FDCA has had a very low solubility in practically any solvent you make it in,” says Ali Hussain Motagamwala, a UW-Madison graduate student in chemical and biological engineering and co-author of the study. “You have to use a lot of solvent to get a small amount of FDCA, and you end up with high separation costs and undesirable waste products.”
Motagamwala and colleagues’ new process begins with fructose, which they convert in a two-step process to FDCA in a solvent system composed of one part GVL and one part water. The end result is a high yield of FDCA that easily separates from the solvent as a white powder upon cooling.
The team’s techno-economic analysis suggests that the process could currently produce FDCA at a minimum selling price of $1,490 per ton. With improvements, including lowering the cost of feedstock and reducing the reaction time, the price could reach $1,310 per ton, which would make their FDCA cost-competitive with some fossil fuel-derived plastic precursors.
“We think this is the streamlined and inexpensive approach to making FDCA that many people in the plastics industry have been waiting for,” says Dumesic. “Our hope is that this research opens the door even further to cost-competitive renewable plastics.”