Wisconsin researchers report bioplastic precursor breakthrough

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In Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering James Dumesic and his team report a high-yield, economical route to furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA), a precursor to bioplastic polyethylene furanoate (PEF) and a number of polyesters and polyurethanes.

PEF is a viable alternative to the ubiquitous, petroleum-based plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but the high cost of producing FDCA has so far limited its use.

“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 study co-author. “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.” The team’s process uses gamma-valerolactone, a plant-derived solvent, which is easily separated from FDCA upon cooling.

The team’s estimates its process currently produces FDCA at $1,490 per ton, and with tweaks they could get that figure down to $1,310 per ton—making their FDCA cost-competitive petroleum-based alternatives.

The work was published in a recent issue of Science Advances.