The term chemurgy hasn’t really been used much since last century, when American scientist George Washington Carver and lesser-known researchers developed hundreds of industrial products based on agricultural crops. But the concept behind the term is again important, as biomass of various types is being turned into building-block chemicals for creating polymers and other materials.
Now, however, the emphasis is more on creating feedstock from agricultural waste and non-food plants. There are certain key requirements for doing this, such as finding the best catalysts for the conversion processes.
For example, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst reportedly developed a new catalyst that increases the yield by 40% of converting pyrolyzed non-food biomass into useful chemicals. And the five chemicals they’re targeting with the method are critical for polymer production: benzene, toluene, xylene, ethylene, and propylene.
Meanwhile, Utrecht University researchers are developing an iron nanoparticle catalyst for the conversion of woody plant pruning waste; the catalyst reportedly addresses the excessive number of steps required in most biomass conversion processes.
But waste biomass can also be used in plastics more directly, without breaking it down chemically. For instance, researchers are looking at turning banana leaves, crustacean shells, and almond nut shells into nanofibers for polymer reinforcement. And wood waste can strengthen plastics in 50/50 blends, as long as you incorporate an optimized compatibilizer to make the two materials friendlier with each other. So there’s still plenty of life left in the concept of chemurgy – and several directions for developing it in the years ahead.
Mike Tolinski is the author of Plastics and Sustainability, published in Oct. 2011 by Wiley-Scrivener, and he is Contributing Editor for Plastics Engineering magazine of the Society of Plastics Engineers in the USA. His views have been shaped by his engineering, university, and journalism experience in the plastics and manufacturing industries over the past 21 years.