The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Chemical Engineering Team Produces Valuable Chemical p-xylene Production from Biomass

Wei Fan

Wei Fan

The UMass News Office reports that Professor Wei Fan of our Chemical Engineering (ChE) Department is a member of the team of chemical engineering researchers that has developed a new environmentally friendly chemical process to make p-xylene, an important ingredient of common plastics. The new method has a 97-percent yield and uses sustainable biomass as the feedstock. P-xylene is currently produced from petroleum. The team also includes UMass ChE doctoral students Hong Je Cho and Vivek Vattipalli.

Fan explains that the ability to create p-xylene from renewable biomass is a major step in creating a commercially attractive process.

According to the article by Patrick J. Callahan of the UMass News Office, the key to the new process, which builds on previous work by the research team, is a new zeolite catalyst that directs the liquid chemical reaction to produce p-xylene and discourages the production of other byproducts. Fan says that previous efforts to make p-xylene in this manner have not achieved a yield higher than 75 percent.

Fan says the new zeolite was synthesized to contain phosphorous, which helps create a much more selective chemical reaction that almost exclusively yields p-xylene.

“The phosphorous-containing zeolite catalysts exhibit high surface area and well-dispersed phosphorous active sites,” Fan says. “Different from conventional acid catalysts, the phosphorous-containing zeolite catalyst is highly selective for p-xylene production. The selectivity is unique and has not been observed in the past. It can be easily used for many other important catalytic reactions.”

The research is featured in the current issue of the journal ChemCatChem. It is estimated that the global market for plastic products using this chemical will grow by about 5 percent annually.

Consumers already know the plastics made from this new process by the triangular recycling label “#1” on plastic containers. Xylene chemicals are used to produce a plastic called PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is currently employed in many products, including soda bottles, food packaging, synthetic fibers for clothing, and even automotive parts.

Other members of the team are Limin Ren, Paul J. Dauenhauer, and Michael Tsapatsis from the University of Minnesota, Yu-Hao Yeh and Raymond J. Gorte from the University of Pennsylvania, and Nicholas Gould, Bingjun Xu, and Raul Lobo from the University of Delaware. (November 2016)