12 April 2013 09:53 [Source: ICB]
If necessity is the mother of invention, then economics might be the father of innovation - at least if you consider Wesley Bernskoetter.
Parenthood comes to mind for Bernskoetter in his research on acrylates, as he and his team at Brown University are working on a way to find a cheaper, more sustainable way to make acrylates, a chemical used to make the superabsorbent polymers used in the countless nappies he has had to purchase.
Bernskoetter: acrylates route
He and his team are working on changing that.
Recently, Brown researchers announced a breakthrough in making acrylates using ethylene and carbon dioxide (CO2), with nickel as a promoter. Usually, acrylates are made by heating propylene, which can be relatively expensive when produced on the mass scale needed for global acrylate demand.
Since the 1980s, scientists have been toying with finding alternative ways to create acrylates, and one of the options has long been reacting ethylene with CO2. But the molecule it forms - a five-atom ring of oxygen, nickel and three carbon atoms - has proven challenging to make into acrylates, as the ring must be broken so that a double bond can form between two of the carbon atoms.
Bernskoetter and his colleagues formed two hypotheses as to why this was so challenging. The first was that the hydrogen atom that is needed to pair with the nickel is "pointed away" from the metal in the molecule, he said. The second was that there was not an appropriate empty orbital on the nickel that would enable the nickel-oxygen bond to weaken enough to cleave it.
Bernskoetter and his team turned to Lewis acids to meet the challenge. Lewis acids are known to steal away electrons, and in their experiment, the acids stole them away from the nickel-oxygen bond. The researchers then were able to easily crack the five-atom ring and form the acrylate double bond.
The five-atom ring was broken by the acid equivalent of a sledgehammer. "We just reached for the most potent Lewis acid we had on hand," Bernskoetter said. And the acid bonded to the acrylate.
Now the team is working to dial back the acid used to find the perfect balance of one that breaks up the ring but does not stick, he said.
It might take years for the process to be refined to the point of use at an industrial level, the Brown researcher cautioned. But the potential is there, as are the benefits.
Meanwhile, CO2 is in great supply and could be obtained from waste emissions from other plants, thereby helping reduce the carbon footprints of the emitter and the acrylate producer by using it.
With readily available feedstock, acrylate production via Bernskoetter's team's method could down the road yield a more economically practical way of producing acrylates - and possibly less expensive nappies.
"We believe this is possible," Bernskoetter said.
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