November 29, 2006

Green Chemistry from Sugar Cane

Petroleum has so dominated the chemistry landscape that virtually every possible chemical need has been supplied by a petroleum bi-product. Why is this true? Probably because there was a high value in finding a conversion option to the refinery residue and well-funded labs ready to comply.

Solvents, nutrients, plastics, fertilizers, pesticides - all tap the seemingly endless potential of hydro-carbons (fossil fuels). But why couldn't the same be true for carbo-hydrates (biomass)? And what could research labs invent from the residues of conversion technologies if we devoted the same one hundred years to the exploration (see also side-stream chemicals)?

Mining the web for articles about biomass bioproducts I found this gem on the BioPact blog. See the original article for the unedited version:

Sugar cane has "enormous potential for green chemistry"

With high oil prices, alternatives for petro-chemicals are being sought, urgently, and sugar cane might bring us a far way.

Surprisingly, top work is coming from the tiny Indian Ocean island of Réunion, where researchers from the Centre d’Essai, de Recherche et de Formation pour la Canne à Sucre (CERF), are working on a program aimed at valorising the many interesting molecules contained in sugar cane. According to Laurent Corcodel, who is leading the research, "these molecules have an enormous potential as building blocks for organic chemistry aimed at displacing countless petro-chemical products". The program is part of the island's ambitious target of building a first biorefinery in the next four years, that will produce bio-plastics, detergents, tinctures, drugs, glues, gels, and even bio-polymers resembling nylon from which clothes can be made... all from the humble grass known as sugar cane.

Leading the list of interesting molecules is aconitic acid (C6H6O6), a white, crystalline organic acid abundantly found in sugar cane. Laurent Corcodel:

Aconitic acid has never before been used on an industrial scale [unlike lactic acid, a building bloc for polylactic acid from which bioplastics are made]. Its potential is great, though. It has the same characteristics as certain molecules derived from petroleum that are used for a variety of products.

Since the molecule is so versatile, we can work in a systematic manner: first we decide which products we want to make, then we work out the technical procedures. In all likeliness we will start by manufacturing tensio-actifs (a kind of specialty glue), but it could just as well be bioplastics. Whichever products we make, one thing is certain: our biorefinery will reduce the importance of petrochemistry and shift the future towards green chemistry.

Sugar cane, the humble grass, is thus rapidly becoming an extremely versatile crop: vinasses, juice, fibres, molasses, bagasses and specialty molecules, - the cane can be used to make plastics, liquid fuel, feed, food, fibre, even paper, furniture and clothes. "People have been talking about green chemistry for years, but now the work is really starting. High oil prices and the prospect of depleting resources have opened a new era", affirms William Hoareau, who works for the CERF, analysing the potential uses of bagasse.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One problem, IIRC. Sugar cane as a crop exhausts the soil in which it is grown quite quickly. I'm not sure if the world's arable land capacity can support the amounts of sugar cane required to produce the amount of energy and organic compounds required.

I think this is where the geneticists come in...