Could your car run on sugar? Researchers look for ways to replace petroleum with plant-based carbohydrates.
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff.
Since the 1973 oil crisis, when the OPEC cartel squeezed production of crude oil to drive up world prices, experts have recognized the vital need to develop alternative sources of energy.
The crisis shook up the domestic automobile industry and opened the floodgates to small, efficient imports, particularly from Japan, which forced domestic car manufacturers to build smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.
But the chemical industry, which is heavily dependent on petroleum as a raw material, was slower to respond.
In recent years, the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that world oil production will peak by mid-century. After that, production of this nonrenewable fossil fuel is expected to decline. And the world’s industrialized economies also may wane if they don’t find alternatives to petroleum as a feedstock for the production of fuels, plastics and chemicals.
Researchers in the chemical industry have begun to shoulder this challenge and are working to develop new processes and products that use renewable, carbon-based materials, such as plant-based carbohydrates, rather than petroleum. Among these researchers is Robert J. Davis, professor and chairman of the Department of Chemical Engineering.
Davis has received a three-year, $290,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study ways that the structure of sugar molecules can be manipulated to produce carbon-based molecules from which plastics, paints, solvents and fibers can be made.
Davis said that the use of water-soluble carbohydrates also may lead to advances in chemical technology and the adoption of more environmentally sound practices that are not possible using traditional petrochemistry.
In particular, Davis and his research team are working to understand how certain factors, such as temperature and solutions’ alkaline levels, affect the action of ruthenium catalysts in controlling the rate of reaction and development of desired products during carbohydrate conversion. Their goal is to be able to control reactions to create various intermediate chemical products.
The current project continues work funded by a previous three-year $303,500 NSF grant.
Davis is the principal investigator for this project, which also is profiting from the contributions of two chemical engineering doctoral candidates -- Erin McKoon and William Ketchie.