2,5-furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) is a new renewable building block for polymers. As one might expect, it is in great demand in the chemical industry for activities such as the production of plastics. However, FDCA is currently only produced on a small scale, making it difficult to compete on cost with existing building blocks such as terephthalic or phthalic acid. Wageningen Food & Biobased Research investigated whether FDCA could be produced more cheaply from alternative renewable sources.
The study took place within the BE-Basic programme, a public-private research programme which focuses on fundamental scientific questions related to the biobased economy. Wageningen Food & Biobased Research cooperated with the company Corbion on this study.
Where existing routes to produce FDCA are based on edible sugars from food sources such as starch, this project considered the use of alternative non-food crops. The raw material chosen for the purposes of the project was Miscanthus, a fast-growing grass which has the advantage of being easy to grow in areas that are unsuitable for food crops.
A wet process
To obtain FDCA from Miscanthus, the scientists designed a step-by-step process. First, the cellulose in the grass had to be isolated, after which it was enzymatically converted into glucose and then fructose. Next, the fructose was chemically converted into an intermediate product, after which FDCA was obtained by fermentation.
To minimise costs during this multi-step process, the scientists aimed to have all the reactions take place in water so that there would be minimal need for purification steps. “We largely succeeded in getting the process to operate in water,” says senior scientist Daan van Es. “It works well from the moment that the glucose is extracted, although cost-effective isolation of as much cellulose as possible from Miscanthus is still a challenge.”
Despite the remaining challenges, Corbion has developed a process for FDCA production – albeit not on the basis of second-generation raw materials like Miscanthus or agricultural side streams. “The isolation of sugars with the right degree of purity from this kind of raw material is currently still too costly” Van Es concludes.