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Biomass could yield chemical bonanza

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Staff Writers
Ames, Iowa (UPI) Sep 7, 2010
U.S. researchers say they've produced high-value chemicals from biomass rather than traditional petroleum sources.

Scientists at Iowa State University looking to produce sugar derivatives from cellulose and other forms of biomass were surprised when their process yielded significant amounts of ethylene glycol and propylene glycol, a university release said.

"It was a real surprise," chemistry Professor Walter Trahanovsky said. "These products were unexpected, so we never looked for them. But they were always there."

Ethylene glycol is used in auto antifreeze, polyester fabrics and plastic bottles. Propylene glycol can be used as a food additive, a solvent in pharmaceuticals, a moisturizer in cosmetics and as a coolant in liquid cooling systems.

"There is potential here," Trahanovsky said. "It's not a wild dream to think this could be developed into a practical process."

The method, using biomass materials in alcohol at high temperatures and pressures, works without the usual expensive reagents such as acids, enzymes, catalysts or hydrogen gas.

"The starting materials for this are cheap," Trahanovsky said. "And the products are reasonably high-value chemicals."

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