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University Of Minnesota Researchers Develop Catalyst To Make Renewable Paints, Coatings And Diapers

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A team led by University of Minnesota researchers has invented a groundbreaking new catalyst technology that converts renewable materials like trees and corn to the key chemicals, acrylic acid and acrylates used in paints, coatings and superabsorbent polymers. The new catalyst technology is also highly efficient, which means lower costs for manufacturing renewable chemicals.

The new catalyst formulation converts lactic acid-based chemicals derived from corn to acrylic acid and acrylates with the highest yield achieved to date. The technology exhibits substantially higher performance when benchmarked against other classes of leading catalysts.

The research is published online in the Journal of the American Chemical Society Gold (JACS Au).

Acrylic acid and associated acrylates are best known through their uses in everyday items from paints and coatings to sticky adhesives to superabsorbent materials used in diapers. These chemicals and materials have been made for the last century from fossil fuels. But in the last few decades, the corn industry has been growing to expand beyond food and livestock feed to manufacturing useful chemicals. One such corn-derived chemical is sustainable lactic acid, a key ingredient in the manufacturing of the renewable and compostable plastic used in many everyday applications.

Lactic acid can also be converted to acrylic acid and acrylates using catalysts. However, until this new catalyst discovery, traditional catalysts were very inefficient and expensive.

“Our new catalyst formulation discovery achieves the highest yield to date of acrylic acid from lactic acid,” said Paul Dauenhauer, a professor in the U of M College of Science and Engineering. “We benchmarked the performance of our new catalyst to all prior catalysts, and the performance far exceeds previous examples.”

The new catalyst formulation substantially reduces the cost of manufacturing renewable acrylic acid and acrylates from corn by improving yield and reducing waste. For the first time, this could reduce the price of renewable acrylic acid below fossil-derived chemicals.

The research team plans to continue their basic research on catalyst design to understand the fundamental aspects of the chemistry with financial support from the Center for Sustainable Polymers.

“This is a wonderful example of how addressing important basic research questions that are at the heart of fundamental catalysis can lead to innovative new processes that have true technological promise,” said Marc Hillmyer, director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers and a professor in the College of Science and Engineering. “A grand challenge in the Center for Sustainable Polymers is the efficient and sustainable conversion of biomass to polymer ingredients, and this work represents a groundbreaking solution to that challenge that will have lasting impact.”

The research team was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation through the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers, a multi-university collaborative team with a mission to transform how plastics are made, unmade and remade through innovative research.