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U of Delaware researchers develop process to make rubber tires and plastics out of plant materials

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: July 12th, 2017

Researchers at the University of Delaware (UD) are developing a method to convert plant matter and wood into everything from car tires to Lego blocks.

Based at the DOE-funded Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation, the research team is working on a process for turning sugars extracted from switchgrass, wood chips and other biomass into butadiene, a chemical used to make synthetic rubber and hard plastics.

The technology could be of particular value to tire manufacturers like Goodyear, Michelin and Bridgestone, which are trying to meet the growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products. At the same time, the shale gas boom that has helped drive down gas prices is also leading to a reduction in the domestic supply of butadiene. Unlike crude oil, shale gas does not give off butadiene as a by-product.

“We don’t make the molecules as much as we used to,” says Dionisios Vlachos, UD professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of the Catalysis Center. “All of the sudden, we’re in higher demand and less supply, so we need to find a way to make them. And if we find a way that’s also renewable, that’s a winner.”

The scientists have proven their process in a lab, but there is still more work to be done to show the technology is scalable and economically viable. The team will most likely need a corporate partner or start-up to license the technology and make significant investments in additional research.

“Every discovery is like one of our babies, and this is just our youngest one,” says Vlachos. “It could grow up to be transformational, but first we need to help it crawl and walk before it can drive down the road. Then we will see.”

Source: delawareonline

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