Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions

Our Sustainable Future: A greener process for a key ingredient used to make paint, diapers, and other products

April 25, 2011

Paints, glues, and other materials containing acrylic
acid can be made in a green, eco-friendly way using
a new approach that avoids the use of petroleum.
Credit: iStock

Summary

What do paints, diapers, adhesives, textiles, and leather
treatments have in common? These and hundreds of
other products contain acrylic acid, a key industrial
material that’s usually made from pricey and increasingly
scarce petroleum. A study published in the American
Chemical Society’s journal, ACS Catalysis, reports that
scientists have developed a new catalyst that provides an
environmentally way to make acrylic acid without using
petroleum.

What do paints, diapers, adhesives, textiles, and leather treatments have in common? These and hundreds of other products are made from acrylic acid, a key industrial material that’s usually produced from pricey and increasingly scarce petroleum. A study published in the American Chemical Society’s journal, ACS Catalysis, reports that scientists have developed a new catalyst that provides an environmentally way to make acrylic acid without using petroleum.

Weijie Ji and colleagues note that acrylic acid is essential for making paints, adhesives, and many other products. Global demand for the colorless liquid totals about 4 million tons annually. Acrylic acid is typically made from propylene obtained from petroleum. With prices rising, manufacturers have been seeking alternative ways of making acrylic acid without buying propylene. One possibility involves making it from lactic acid. But current processes for using lactic acid are inefficient, less selective, and require higher temperatures and the accompanying high inputs of energy.

The scientists’ potential solution is a new catalyst that can convert lactic acid into acrylic acid more efficiently. Lactic acid is a classic renewable starting material, produced by bacteria growing in vats of biomass such as glucose and starch from plants. Here is Weijie Ji of Nanjing University in China:

“We showed that the new catalyst can convert lactic acid to acrylic acid more selectively at lower temperatures. We are very excited about this finding and its potential benefits. – The catalyst is not very complicated to prepare.”

The potential benefits of the catalyst include better use of lactic acid, lower fuel consumption, and less impact on the environment. For consumers, that could translate into greener paints, diapers, and hundreds of other household products.

Smart Chemists/Innovative Thinking

Smart chemists. Innovative thinking. That’s the key to solving global challenges of the 21st Century. Please check out more of our full-length podcasts on wide-ranging issues facing chemistry and science, such as promoting public health, developing new fuels and confronting climate change, at www.acs.org/GlobalChallenges.Today’s podcast was written by Mark Sampson. I’m Adam Dylewski at the American Chemical Society in Washington.

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Weijie Ji, Ph.D.,
Nanjing University, China