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Multi-institutional Research Team Invents New Sustainable Process to Make Key Ingredient in Synthetic Rubber and Plastics

Wei Fan

Wei Fan

Professor Wei Fan of the Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department is part of a team of researchers from UMass Amherst, the University of Delaware (UD), and the University of Minnesota that has invented a process to make butadiene, a key ingredient in synthetic rubber and plastics, from renewable sources such as trees, grasses, and corn. Fan’s ChE graduate student Hong Je Cho is also part of the team. The findings are online and will be published in the American Chemical Society’s ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering. See, Product Design and Development, Lab Manager, R&D magazine,, Nanowerk,, Science magazine, Science Daily.

All the researchers are affiliated with the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovations (CCEI), based at UD and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Initiated in 2009, CCEI has focused on transformational catalytic technology to produce renewable chemicals and biofuels from natural biomass sources.

Fan’s catalysis expertise was a key part of the new process described in ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering.

"Through the collaboration with Professor Michael Tsapatsis at University of Minnesota, we discovered that phosphorus-based catalysts supported by silica and zeolites exhibit high selectivity for manufacturing chemicals like butadiene," says Fan about the catalytic process engineered for the new process. The team calls this new selective reaction "dehydra-decyclization" to represent its capability for simultaneously removing water and opening ring compounds at once.

Fan adds that "When comparing [the silica- and zeolite-supported catalysts’] capability for controlling certain industrial chemistry uses with that of other catalysts, the phosphorous materials appear truly unique and nicely complement the set of catalysts we have been developing at CCEI."

The Fan Porous Materials Research Group at UMass Amherst focuses on the rational synthesis of nanoporous materials for the catalysts of biorefinery and drug delivery carriers. The engineering for the catalysts’ pore structure and size, surface properties, and active sites is based on the comprehensive understanding of their crystallization mechanism.

As the Science Daily website explains about the new process for producing butadiene: “Synthetic rubber and plastics -- used for manufacturing tires, toys, and myriad other products -- are produced from butadiene, a molecule traditionally made from petroleum or natural gas. But those human-made materials could get a lot greener soon, thanks to a team of scientists that has invented a process to make butadiene from renewable sources.”

"Our team combined a catalyst we recently discovered with new and exciting chemistry to find the first high-yield, low-cost method of manufacturing butadiene," says CCEI Director Dionisios Vlachos, the Allan and Myra Ferguson Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UD and a co-author of the study. "This research could transform the multi-billion-dollar plastics and rubber industries."

Butadiene is the chief chemical component in a broad range of materials found throughout society. For instance, when this four-carbon molecule undergoes a chemical reaction to form long chains called polymers, styrene-butadiene rubber is formed, which is used to make abrasive-resistant automobile tires. When blended to make nitrile butadiene rubber, butadiene becomes the key component in hoses, seals, and the rubber gloves ubiquitous in medical settings. In the world of plastics, butadiene is the chief chemical component in acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), a hard plastic that can be molded into rigid shapes. Tough ABS plastic is used to make video game consoles, automotive parts, sporting goods, medical devices, and interlocking plastic toy bricks, among other products.

"This newer technology significantly expands the slate of molecules we can make from lignocellulose," says Professor Paul Dauenhauer, formerly of the UMass Amherst ChE department and now at the University of Minnesota. Dauenhauer is co-director of CCEI and a co-author of the study.

Last spring, Fan was selected for the 2016 College of Engineering Outstanding Teaching Award and the Barbara H. and Joseph I. Goldstein Outstanding Junior Faculty Award by the UMass College of Engineering.

DOI for the publication: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.7b00745. (June 2017)

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