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GC&E Recap: From Waste to Wealth

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The ACS GCI Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference technical programming was organized into thematic tracks this year. Each track was able to be followed throughout the conference so as to provide a deeper understanding of the theme, which reflected a important component of green chemistry innovation. One theme this year was “New Chemical Feedstocks,” organized by Julie Zimmerman of Yale University, which was dedicated to major trends in the development of alternatives sources to fossil fuel for chemicals and technologies.

Professor James Clark of University of York organized and chaired a session titled “From Waste to Wealth: Chemicals from Discarded Food and Trash.” Deriving valuable chemicals from various wastes (or waste valorization) is a key field of research that seeks to erode chemistry’s dependence on fossil fuels. According to Clark, “waste valorization is a vital part of a future sustainable society and we need to develop technologies for getting chemical and material value from waste, and not just energy.” He also chairs the “Food waste valorization for sustainable chemicals, materials, and fuels” through the European Cooperation in Science and Technology, where the goal is to bring a critical mass of researchers and stakeholders to harness to potential of food supply chain waste. Stemming from this line of work, this GC&E session dove into different waste streams that are being utilized for a wide range of materials.

Mark Mascal, a Professor of Chemistry at University of California—Davis, set the stage for the Waste to Wealth session by discussing important considerations for bioderived molecules and their processes with his presentation “5-(Chloromethyl)furfural (CMF) is the new HMF: Functionally equivalent but more practical in terms of its production from biomass.” HMF (or 5-hydroxymethyl furfural) is considered to be a very important platform chemical for pathways to a wide range of materials and fuel. It can be made from fructose in high yields, but is quite variable from any other feedstock. Mascal’s talk focused on the discussion of CMF as an alternative to HMF due to its ability to be derived from many different feedstocks (sugars from various biomass and waste), its stability, and the opportunity for it to supply key markets in the future (such as levulinic acid, which is a U.S. Department of Energy Top 12 Value Added Chemicals from Biomass). Mascal has worked to create a continuous process, which has now been scaled to pilot and is moving towards large scale demonstration.

The audience continued to have the opportunity to learn from a diverse set of people and topics showing how waste can be turned into valuable chemicals and materials, and as Clark recapped “with real examples, but also showing real challenges.” Another example of the wide range of technologies that can be supported by waste materials was illustrated by Zhiguang Zhu of Cell-Free Bionnovations (a company that also competed in the 2014 ACS GCI Business Plan Competition). Zhu discussed Cell-Free’s high-power and high-energy-density biobattery running on renewable sugars derived from biomass, eventually seeking to derive the sugars from cellulose. Hayman Abdoul, a graduate student at the University of York, discussed his work to create materials derived from alginic acid (via brown algae) to be used as super-adsorbents for the removal of bulky dyes from waste waters. In addition to these talks, the other subjects discussed ranged from an overview on “Biomass valorisation, sustainable materials, and the methanol economy” (as presented by Robin White, a project scientist at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies E3—Earth, Energy, and Environment) to University of Milan’s Nicoletta Ravasio’s talk on “Valorization of rice bran and other agro-industry wastes by extraction of oil and esterification over solid catalysts.”

The session wrapped up with Michalis Koutinas, a Lecturer at Cyprus University of Technology, who gave a talk on the bioprocess development for the production of ethyl lactate from dairy waste. Koutinas’ research presented a framework for ethyl lactate (used in pharmaceutical preparations, flavorings, and as a solvent) from cheese whey. By the end of the entire session it was clear that in the case of biobased chemicals, one person’s trash will someday be another person’s treasure. The take home message from Clark is “waste is a resource and we need many more good examples of this to make industry and government wake up to the opportunity.”

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