With the price for crude oil at less than $50 a barrel, Iowa State University’s National Science Foundation Engineering Research Centre for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) is proposing a new model for creating, applying and commercialising chemicals made from corn stalks, wood chips and other sources of biomass.
The researcher’s new model, based on nine years of research, calls for identifying “bioprivelelged molecules” that offer unique properties and could lead to new products.
CBiRC's Brent Shanks and Peter Keeling introduced the new model in a recent perspectives article, "Bioprivileged molecules: creating value from biomass," published by the journal Green Chemistry.
"Bioprivileged molecules by their origin from biological-derived molecules and concomitant plethora of functionalities have the potential to greatly expand the bioproduct horizon beyond the scope of petrochemicals," Shanks and Keeling wrote in their paper.
"What we're talking about is novel molecules with new properties," Keeling said. "These molecules haven't been thought about because they weren't possible from petrochemicals. But there could be great value in this novelty."
A gap in the market?
Oil refineries turning crude oil into fuels produce light gases as a byproduct, and these gases have been taken by certain companies to be turned into intermediate molecules that feed the petrochemical industry to produce its plastics, fibers, adhesives, detergents, paints, inks and much more.
The problem, according to the CBiRC, is that the petrochemical industry continues to work with familiar molecules and efficient processes that produce low-cost chemicals. This has made it difficult to develop economically viable ways for biobased chemicals to replace the petrochemicals produced from cheap crude oil.
In a statement, Shanks observes that the petrochemical industry hasn’t produced new commercial molecules in two decades, a fact which could create an opening for biobased chemicals.
"The question you have to ask is, 'Do we have all the molecules we need?'" Shanks said. "Are we done?"
After consulting scientists and engineers in the consumer products industry, the CBiRC team found that there was a need for new innovation, new products, and new molecules. Shanks and Keeling think that plant biomass could meet this need.
CBiRC is working to show the way by developing approaches to systematically identify bioprivileged molecules as well as high-throughput strategies that can quickly evaluate thousands of new molecules for applications in various industries.
"We're saying, 'Let's make molecules,'" Keeling said. "It's very hard to design your way to a new molecule. So we're taking new, bioprivileged molecules and seeing where they can best be used."