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Wood instead of Petroleum

New Approach to Produce Chemical Substances from Renewable Resources

| Editor: Manja Wühr

Molecules from wood: Production of active substances from wood-based starting materials
Molecules from wood: Production of active substances from wood-based starting materials (Picture: Jason W. Runyon)

Petroleum might well be replaced by wood soon when it comes to manufacturing chemical substances. Research has now made significant progress towards using sustainable biomass, like wood, as an alternative raw material for chemical production.

Mainz/Germany – Maybe the the chemistry of tomorrow is made of wood: Scientists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany and at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in the USA recently managed to synthesize two complex chemical substances from wood-based starting materials. The process can be as cost-effective as the conventional petroleum product-based process and is less damaging to the environment. Wood contains a variety of potential starting materials that, because of their chemical structure, are better suited than petroleum products for many applications. It is often necessary to subject the latter to extensive transformation processes before they acquire comparable functionality.

The German research team led by Professor Till Opatz at JGU's Institute of Organic Chemistry participates in the interdisciplinary research consortium Chemical BioMedicine (ChemBioMed) funded by the Carl Zeiss Foundation and works on the synthesis of substances that can inhibit tumor cell growth. The US research group under Professor Anthony J. Arduengo III is particularly interested in developing industrially applicable methods for using materials derived from wood biomass for the sustainable manufacture of a broad array of basic chemicals such as, for example, substances used to produce automotive coatings, plastics, adhesives, and other commodity materials. At a conference in Goslar in Germany about two years ago, the two researchers realized that their experience and expertise complemented each other perfectly for addressing issues surrounding sustainability of a modern chemical industry. Since then, a vigorous exchange of researchers and students between Mainz and Tuscaloosa has fueled the collaboration.

The two teams have now been able to demonstrate wood-based, or xylochemical, syntheses of substances for which petroleum products are usually employed as starting materials. This new work shows that the relevant carbon skeletons can be created solely from wood-based starting materials. In the case of one target compound, the natural product ilicifoline B, no comparison with a petrochemical route was possible as this substance had never before been synthesized in a laboratory. But when it came to derivatives of the natural painkiller morphine, the new xylochemical synthesis turned out to be significantly more efficient than any previously known route based on petrochemistry.

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