New research on natural materials has the potential to unlock innovations in packaging, clean energy, and other industries. Fructose, a sugar found in many plants, and calcium carbonate, the material that crystallizes into chalk, shells, and rocks, have each led to chemical discoveries.
DuPont Industrial Biosciences and Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) have developed a methodology that uses fructose to produce cost-efficient, renewable chemicals and polymers for plastics and textiles.
The companies found that fructose can be used to produce furan dicarboxylic methyl ester (FDME) FDME is a high-purity derivative of furan dicarboxylic acid (FDCA), which is a “building block” that can be converted into a number of bio-based chemicals and materials. The sought-after chemical that has previously been too expensive to use at a commercial scale.
“This molecule is a game-changing platform technology. It will enable cost-efficient production of a variety of 100 percent renewable, high-performance chemicals and polymers with applications across a broad range of industries,” said Simon Herriot, global business director for biomaterials at DuPont.
One of the first polymers under development utilizing FDME is a novel polyester, polytrimethylene furandicarboxylate (PTF), that also uses another proprietary DuPont material, Bio-PDO™ (1,3-propanediol). PTF can be used to make recyclable bottles and other beverage packaging with improved gas-barrier properties compared to other polyesters, which can extend product shelf life.
“We are excited about the potential FDME has to help our customers reach new markets and develop better-performing products, all made from sustainable, bio-based starting materials,” said Kevin Moore, president, renewable chemicals at ADM.
DuPont and ADM plan to build a 60 ton-per-year demonstration plant in Illinois which will allow customers to test and research FDME.
Meanwhile, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy have identified the chemical interactions that enables calcium carbonate crystals to form both hard-to-break shells and chalk that is soft enough to draw with on sidewalks.
“This work helps us to sort out how rather weak crystals can form composite materials with remarkable mechanical properties,” said materials scientist Jim De Yoreo of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “It also provides us with ideas for trapping carbon dioxide in useful materials to deal with the excess greenhouse gases we're putting in the atmosphere, or for incorporating light-responsive nanoparticles into highly ordered crystalline matrices for solar energy applications.”
Calcium carbonate is a versatile natural material – it is used by people and animals to make biominerals such as pearls, sea shells, exoskeletons, or the organs in ears that maintain balance. The biominerals include proteins or other organic matter in the crystalline matrix, which create a compressive force that makes the crystal matrix more difficult to break, and creates the stronger, more durable structure. Previously, this was thought to happen due to a mechanical process, but De Yoreo and his team have discovered that it is, in fact, chemical.
As calcium carbonate crystallizes to form calcite, it builds up in layers and creates uneven surfaces as it grows, like steps and terraces on a mountainside or a staircase. The researchers discovered that the edges of the steps have different chemistry than the terraces. Spherical molecules that stick to the edges are compressed like springs as the steps close (grow) around them, creating strain in the crystal lattice that is forming and enhancing its mechanical strength. The discovery has implications for new methods of material production and improvements in energy technologies.