An old chemical reaction – the Fisher Tropsch process – is expected to make it possible to produce plastic from biomass in the future. But there is still a long road ahead.
Olefins are the materials for plastic. They have traditionally been made by cracking oil. To make the process sustainable, people have been trying for years to use biomass as a raw material. To date, success has been limited: the reaction is inefficient and yields many undesired by-products. Dr Iulian Dugulan, a researcher in the department of fundamental aspects of materials and energy at the reactor institute (Applied Sciences) has succeeded in making substantial improvements in one of the steps of the reaction.
In his own words, he is investigating the most important process in the manufacture of olefins: catalysis. More specifically, Dugulan is examining the Fisher Tropsch process. This famous chemical reaction has been used since the 1920s to convert carbon dioxide and hydrogen into liquid fuel – olefins, which are a type of hydrocarbon. Traditionally, an iron-based catalyst has been used for this purpose.
Utrecht University has developed a new catalyst, which also contains iron, but to which nano-particles of sodium and sulphur have been added in order to improve the stability and efficiency of the process. This will make it possible to convert more biogas into olefins. At the reactor institute, Dugulan is examining the operation of this new catalyst during the chemical reaction. It is the only laboratory in the world where this is possible. ‘It is important that we look at the active operation of the catalyst, given that it is positioned in a dynamic balance. It changes along with its environment.’
Dugulan published his findings in Science in 2012, together with his colleagues from Utrecht. In that article, they also mentioned their collaboration with Shell, Dow Chemical and Johnson Matthey. According to Dugulan, these industrial partners already have large factories for the Fisher Tropsch process.
Whether this process actually is the perfect solution for the production of both energy and plastics remains to be seen. Although Shell is already making hydrocarbons and fuels without oil, this process has yet to be coupled with the manufacture of olefins. Dugulan placed it perspective, saying, ‘We are still in the starting phase’. ECN is already working on burning biomass (i.e. agricultural waste products) in order to make gas. Nevertheless, we cannot yet make plastic out of this synthetic gas. ‘In practical terms, it is still a long way from biomass to bio-plastics.’