23.09.2020 change 23.09.2020

Lodz scientist turns green waste into compounds for plastic

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Green waste, for example waste from food production or grass growing in post-industrial wasteland or former mine sites, can be processed into biofuels, polymers or pharmaceutical raw materials thanks to catalysts developed by a scientist at the Lodz University of Technology.

In an interview with PAP, Dr. Agnieszka Ruppert says that lignocellulosic biomass is abundantly available plant waste that has not been used in any way so far. Catalysts developed at the Chemistry Faculty at the Lodz University of Technology makes it possible to use this 'green source of carbon' for the production of valuable chemical compounds needed in almost every industry.

The biomass resources are almost limitless as it can be obtained from farmers, cities and food production waste.

Dr. Ruppert said: “After converting such a diverse biomass, a lot of compounds are formed. It is difficult to talk about the viability of the process, since it cannot be selectively targeted at one specific compound with desired properties. Therefore, nanomaterials are needed that will allow this reaction to be carried out so that we can obtain only one compound or a group of compounds. We have discovered nanomaterials that are such catalysts and we can completely control what happens in the course of the reaction in the nano sphere.”

The method from Łódź makes it possible to convert green waste into compounds used to obtain biofuels or green polymer equivalents, from which, at a later stage, plastics can be produced. Waste biomass conversion to the desired reaction product is very efficient. The catalyst can be used many times and only a very small amount of it has to be added to the biomass.

Dr. Ruppert said: “We can create a material that is extremely small and at the same time can convert biomass consisting of waste plants, but also other waste, into one specific product. We have developed pioneering methods of catalyst synthesis based on competitively priced base metals. The reaction has several stages. We need several different types of catalysts. Depending on the type of nanomaterial and the process conditions, we can direct the reaction where we want. As a result, we obtain either biofuels or polymer precursors, or compounds that can be used in the pharmaceutical industry. The potential of applications is very large.” 

She added that all these compounds are more valuable than what the reaction begins with: green waste. In order to implement the pioneering technology, the researcher is considering cooperation with food companies that don't know what to do with their waste.

The technology can also be used for the reclamation of former excavation sites or post-industrial wastelands. Fast-growing grasses and plants that absorb heavy metals from the soil are sown on heavily contaminated soils. Such biomass can hardly be used for anything. The new method of catalysing the reaction will also make it possible to use such plants as a renewable carbon source.

The research was carried out in cooperation with centres in France and Germany. The project 'Competitive base metal catalysts for the conversion of biomass into compounds of industrial importance' received funding from the National Science Centre in the SONATA BIS 6 programme.

Dr. Agnieszka Ruppert completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Utrecht, and then at the Max-Planck Institute in Mülheim. After returning to the Lodz University of Technology, she began research on new catalysts and nanomaterials used in many processes related to environmental protection. She cooperates with Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The chemist is among the winners of the Polish Smart Growth Award 2020 in the Scientist of the Future category. The awards will be presented on November 26 and 27 in Uniejów. The competition jury meets every two months to select new winners. Award-winning projects can revolutionize the economy and raise people's standard of living now or in the future. The organizer of the award is the Smart Growth Centre, and the content partner is the Silesian Center for Business Ethics and Sustainable Development at the Silesian University of Technology.

PAP - Science in Poland, Karolina Duszczyk

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