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New Process for the Efficient Production of a Chemical Intermediate (HMF) from Sugar; Building Blocks for Plastics and Fuels

Click to enlarge. Source: James Dumesic

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed an efficient process to make a chemical intermediate called HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural) from fructose from biomass. HMF can be converted into plastics, petroleum or diesel fuel extenders, or even into diesel fuel itself.

The two-phase process operates at high fructose concentrations (10 to 50 wt.%), achieves high yields (80% HMF selectivity at 90% fructose conversion), and delivers HMF in a separation-friendly solvent.

Prof. James Dumesic—a co-founder of Virent, a company which is commercializing the aqueous phase reforming technology he developed (earlier post)—and his research team reports on this work in the 30 June issue of the journal Science.

Trying to understand how to use catalytic processes to make chemicals and fuel from biomass is a growing area. Instead of using the ancient solar energy locked up in fossil fuels, we are trying to take advantage of the carbon dioxide and modern solar energy that crop plants pick up.

—James Dumesic

The basic approach to this type of biofuel technology is the controlled removal of oxygen from carbohydrates to obtain oxygenated hydrocarbons. The controlled elimination of water from sugars has been studied extensively, and can provide HMF, levulinic acid, and other organic acids.

Although other researchers have previously converted fructose into HMF, Dumesic’s research group made a series of improvements that raised the HMF output and also made the HMF easier to extract.

The new process first dehydrates the fructose in the aqueous phase with the use of an acid catalyst (hydrochloric acid or an acidic ion-exchange resin) with dimethylsulfoxide and/or poly(1-vinyl-2-pyrrolidinone) added to suppress undesired side reactions.

The HMF product then moves to a solvent that carries it to a separate location, where it is extracted. Once made, HMF can be converted into plastics or diesel fuel.

Dumesic is also exploring methods to convert other sugars and even more complex carbohydrates into HMF and other chemical intermediates. In earlier work, Dumesic and his team had demonstrated the dehydration and hydrogenation of an aqueous stream of sorbitol to hexane.

This field of study is ripe for further rapid advances as the revolution in catalysis, computational modeling, and combinatorial chemistry will lead to a suite of catalytic systems that will facilitate the conversion of biomass polysaccarides to liquid alkanes and oxyalkanes for fuel applications.

—Ragauskas, et. al.



allen zheng

One thing we need to do is to do the 3R's. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
___Recycle, with higher raw material and energy costs, it is time to make not recycling inexcusable. Whether it be metals that use far less (energy and $$$) to recycle than dig out of the ground, transport it far away, and make into metal, or plastics that are used once, and then thrown away. I can understand plastic medical waste, but the vast majority can be recycled. As for plastics, if it does not meet material/ structural/chemical standards, it could be reduced to constituent elements, and then used from there. Paper could be processed in many ways from more paper, to fuel, to compost.
As for electronics, there are various elements, rare-precious and/or toxic, that needs to be be recovered. Various semi-metals that we have not heard aboout since highschool chemistry, if not ever, are rare and utterly necessary for us to advance into the future. Advanced solar cells with 35-50%+ efficiency are on the horizon may demand these elements. Gold, silver, need I say more?
___Reusing what we buy; glass/plastic bottles/jars.
___Reduce, don't buy what you don't need. Why do you think there has been a self storage boom in the US.
___As to this process, it is part of a train of biosourced replacement for fossil energy based synthetic products. Perhaps we can do a form of sequestation of making the the products from whatever source (preferably biomass), using and recycling it until unusable. Then extracting the carbon, binding it to something, and burry it somewhere.

Roger Pham

Great points, Allen.
The reason that recycling, reduction and reuse are not practice here in the USA is because it would cost less to make new than to recycle. The law of entropy at work. However, those in charge failed to see the hidden cost of excessive garbage, land fill, and pollution. If one would quantitate the environmental cost of lack of recycling, and tax each industry appropriately, or levy tariff against importers for products that can cause environmental damage without recycling, then things may turn around.

In Japan and Europe, much greater effort was paid to recycling. In the USA, recycling is starting to be practice. China starts to tax throwaway chopsticks. I'd say make chopsticks out of dishwasher-safe plastics, and reuse them.


It seems like medical waste would be a good place for TDP type of technology. The molecules get ripped apart, killing any pathogens, and at the end you get something similar to diesel fuel..


Certain types of recycling are practiced significantly in the US, and some of these have been practiced for a long time. Both cardboard and many types of metal, for instance, are worth money in recycling to those who produce a lot of it. Many businesses take advantage of this. It can be notiably cheaper to recycle some things in some cases. Many recycling options are becoming more and more feasible as better infrastrucure and more participants come into play.

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