Amino acids: Green building blocks for products

Plastic, synthetics and other chemical products are made from crude oil.

However, the stocks of this natural resource are being depleted, prices continue to rise, and processing crude oil to manufacture chemical products is bad for the environment. The Value Conversion of Plant Production Chains and Organic Chemistry chair groups at Wageningen UR are studying the possibilities for biomass as an alternative raw material for the chemical industry.

There is a great deal of interest in the use of vegetable raw materials (such as maize) for producing products such as bio-ethanol and biodiesel. During the manufacture of these products, proteins remain as by-products. Although these proteins are currently being used as livestock feed, there are many other potential uses as well. They may for example be used as a raw material for plastics. For this reason, researchers at Wageningen UR are conducting research into these possibilities.

Green building block

Plastics are currently produced from crude oil. Crude oil consists of hydrocarbons. In order to make crude oil suitable as a building block for plastics, oxygen and nitrogen atoms must be incorporated into this raw material. This process uses a great deal of energy, is not very environmentally friendly, and requires the use of aggressive substances.

This is not the case when biomass is used as a raw material for plastics. The vegetable proteins that remain after the production of bio-ethanol are made up of amino acids. These naturally contain oxygen and nitrogen atoms. This makes them particularly suitable as a raw material for plastics. Various processes are required in order to make these amino acids truly suitable as a raw material in the production of plastics.

Plastics from biomass

The first step on the road to producing plastics from green raw materials has been taken successfully. Amino acids contain relatively few oxygen atoms. The researchers were successful in extracting the excess oxygen from the amino acid in the form of CO2. This is done with the aid of an enzyme in water at room temperature. Not only is this process very inexpensive, it requires very little energy and does not use aggressive chemicals or toxic solvents.

Two more steps are required in the production of plastics from biomass. Within the project, researchers are working hard to also ensure the success of these conversions of amino acids so that it will be possible in the future to produce plastics from environmentally friendly, renewable and inexpensive plant waste.