Researchers have developed a way to make an efficient catalyst that transforms biomass-derived sugars into a compound used in fuels, plastics and pharmaceuticals. The solid acid catalyst is noncorrosive and easily recovered for re-use, making it easier and potentially cheaper than other catalysts such as mineral acids.
Renewable sources of fuels and chemicals are in high demand to alleviate the pressure of an increasing global energy market and finite fossil fuel supply. As a renewable carbon source, biomass could play an important role in the future fuel and chemical economy. But a major challenge in making biomass-derived chemicals is the selective removal of excess oxygen content from sugar molecules. This can be accomplished by dehydrating sugar molecules to form the compound 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, or HMF, which is used to make fuel, plastics and drugs.
Scientists from across the United States participate in chemical research led by Karen Goldberg at the NSF-supported Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis at the University of Washington. They seek to develop efficient, inexpensive and environmentally friendly methods of synthesizing organic materials by way of activation of strong bonds such as C- H, C- C, C- O and others. The center serves as a model for a team approach to the solution of “big problems” in chemistry, and has advanced biomass science and its value.