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Chemical Engineers Attract Widespread Media Attention with New Technology to Produce Renewable Car Tires from Trees and Grasses

Wei Fan

Wei Fan

Professor Wei Fan and his graduate student Hong Je Cho, both of the UMass Amherst Chemical Engineering Department, are part of a multi-institutional research team that has invented a new technology to produce automobile tires from trees and grasses. The new process could potentially shift the tire industry toward using renewable resources found right in people’s backyards. The research has attracted plenty of media coverage in scientific media, including, R&D magazine, Biomass magazine, Science Daily, Minnesota Ag Connection, Ohio Ag Connection, Lab Manager, Rubber World, and The research is led by former UMass Chemical Engineering Professor Paul Dauenhauer, now at the University of Minnesota.

Fan was recently selected for the 2016 College of Engineering Outstanding Teaching Award and the Barbara H. and Joseph I. Goldstein Outstanding Junior Faculty Award by the UMass College of Engineering. The Fan Porous Materials Research Group focuses on the rational synthesis of nanoporous materials for the catalysts of biorefinery and drug delivery carriers, with engineering their pore structure and size, surface properties, and active sites based on the comprehensive understanding of their crystallization mechanism. Fan’s catalysis expertise was a key part of the new process to produce tires from sustainable biomaterials.

The recent media coverage is based on a new study published by the American Chemical Society’s ACS Catalysis, a leading journal in the chemical and catalysis sciences. Authors of the study include researchers from the University of Minnesota, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the Center for Sustainable Polymers, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded center at the University of Minnesota. To read the full research paper, entitled “Renewable Isoprene by Sequential Hydrogenation of Itaconic Acid and Dehydra-Decyclization of 3-Methyl-Tetrahydrofuran,” visit the ACS Catalysis website.

According to an article produced at the University of Minnesota and published in R&D Magazine, the car tires produced in the new process, created from renewable biomass, would be identical to existing car tires, made predominantly from nonrenewable fossil fuels, with the same chemical makeup, color, shape, and performance.

“Our team created a new chemical process to make isoprene, the key molecule in car tires, from natural products like trees, grasses, or corn,” said Dauenhauer. “This research could have a major impact on the multi-billion dollar automobile tires industry.”

The R&D Magazine article noted that the standard way isoprene is currently produced is by thermally breaking apart molecules in petroleum that are similar to gasoline in a process called “cracking.” The isoprene is then separated out of hundreds of products and purified. In the final step, the isoprene is reacted with itself into long chains to make a solid polymer that is the major component in car tires.

The article observed that biomass-derived isoprene has been a major initiative of tire companies for the past decade, however, renewable isoprene has proven a difficult molecule to generate successfully.

Funded by the NSF, Dauenhauer’s team of researchers has focused on a new process that begins with sugars derived from biomass. Dauenhauer’s team found that a three-step process is optimized when it is “hybridized,” meaning it combines biological fermentation using microbes with conventional catalytic refining that is similar to petroleum refining technology.

The R&D Magazine article said that the technological breakthrough came in the third step to dehydrate methyl-THF to isoprene, when the research team identified a unique metal-metal combination that served as a highly efficient catalyst. Such catalysis processes are Fan’s specialty. Using a catalyst called P-SPP (Phosphorous Self-Pillared Pentasil), the team was able to demonstrate a catalytic efficiency as high as 90 percent, with most of the catalytic product being isoprene. By combining all three steps into a process, isoprene can be renewably sourced from biomass.

“Collaboration was really the key to this research taking biomass all the way to isoprene,” said Carol Bessel, the deputy director for the chemistry division at the NSF, about the cooperation between the University of Minnesota and UMass Amherst. “This collaboration and synergy among researchers with different approaches and skills is really what we are trying to promote within the NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation Program.” (February 2017)