In the modern world we’re living right now, coatings are important for protective purposes. We see them in a lot of applications, like a protective layer on the screen and body of smartphones and paints for our houses. They protect surfaces from scratches, weather fluctuations, and the usual wear and tear.
It’s evident that we need them in this era. However, most coatings’ ingredients are polymers based on acrylate monomers. Acrylate has a global production that exceeds 3.5 million tons a year, all using fossil oil. So although we need them, they’re not eco-friendly so far.
Thanks to chemists, we may have an eco-friendlier version of coatings soon. AzkoNobel and organic chemists from the University of Groningen worked together. For those of you who are not familiar with AzkoNobel, the Dutch company is a major global producer of paints and coatings.
But anyways, both developed a process that allows them to turn biomass into a high-quality coating. All they use are light, oxygen, and UV light. This process combines a renewable source with green chemistry that could replace fossil-oil-based monomers.
Acrylates, which is one of those, are currently favorite materials for resins, paints, and paints.
What kind of biomass?
First author George Hermens said, “We wanted to use lignocellulose as the starting material.” Now, I don’t know exactly what lignocellulose is but they’re kind of wood cellulose fibers or powders.
It makes up 20-30% of the woody parts of plants and it’s the most abundantly available raw biomass material. Right now, we only see them as the main material for solid fuel or biofuels production.
“Lignocellulose can be cracked with acid to produce the chemical building block furfural, but this needs to be modified to make it suitable for the production of coatings,” said Hermens.
Hermens used a process from the team’s development to convert the furfural into hydroxybutenolide that resembles acrylic acid.
“The chemical conversion uses only light, oxygen and a simple catalyst and produces no waste. The only side product is methyl formate, which is useful as a replacement for chlorofluorocarbons in other processes,” he went on.
Some structure of hydroxybutenolide is similar to acrylate, but the reactive part of the molecule is a ring structure. “This means that it is less reactive than acrylate and our challenge was to further modify the molecule so that it would produce a useful polymer,” said Hermens.
To get to this stage, the team added different green or biobased alcohols to the hydroxybutenolide. They created four different alkoxybutenolide monomers.
These monomers can transform into polymers and coatings through an initiator and UV light. “Coatings are made up of cross-linked polymer chains. By combining different monomers, we could get cross-linked polymers with different properties,” Hermens explained.
For example, while all polymers would coat glass, one combination was able to also form a coating on plastic. By adding more rigid monomer, harder coating forms with properties comparable to those of coatings on cars. This way, the coatings are applicable for different purposes.
Developing the product further
Hermens stated, “We managed to create coatings from a renewable source, lignocellulose, using green chemistry. And the quality of our coatings is similar to that of current acrylate-based coatings.”
AzkoNobel, the industrial partner, has filed patent applications. After this, Hermens is working on different building block to produce other types of polymer coatings.
“The programme entails all the steps from fundamental scientific discovery to process and product development. In this long-term partnership, universities and the chemical industry join forces to develop the green chemistry of the future,” concluded Ben Feringa, Hermen’s supervisor.
Making fuels from plants with a cheaper method
On a similar note, a new study finds a method to create biofuels and other bioproducts more cheaply. As humanity progresses, trying to do this has been the focus of scientists and researchers around the globe, with good reasons.
Well, the researchers in this study suggest that it’s possible.
Senior author Venkat Gopalan said, “The process of converting sugar to alcohol has to be very efficient if you want to have the end product be competitive with fossil fuels,
“The process of how to do that is well-established, but the cost makes it not competitive, even with significant government subsidies. This new development is likely to help lower the cost.”
Basically, their discovery is a less expensive and simpler method to create the “helper molecules”. The molecules allow carbon in cells so that they become energy.
What are those “helper molecules” you ask? The chemists call them cofactors, and they’re nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH) and its derivative (NADPH).
In their reduced forms, these cofactors are actually well known. They’re a key part of turning sugar from plants into butanol or ethanol for fuels. These cofactors also play an important role in slowing the metabolism of cancer cells. They’ve been a target of treatment for some cancers.
Unfortunately, NADH and NADPH are not cheap at all.
Making cofactors cheap
To create these reduced cofactors in the lab, the researchers built an electrode. They did it by layering nickel and copper, which are inexpensive elements.
That electrode allowed them to recreate NADH and NADPH from their corresponding oxidized forms.
In the lab, the chemists were able to use NADPH as a cofactor in producing an alcohol from another molecule. They did the test to show that the electrode they build could help convert biomass to biofuels.
Because NADH and NADPH are at the heart of so many energy conversion processes inside cells, this discovery could aid other synthetic applications.
With this discovery, it may be possible for scientists to control the flow of electrons in some cancer cells. And, they can do it affordably and more easily. Controlling the flow of electrons can potentially slow cancer cells’ growth and ability to metastasize.
Also, plants use NADPH to turn carbon dioxide into sugars, which eventually become oxygen through photosynthesis. If NADPH were more accessible and affordable, it could be possible to create an artificial photosynthesis reaction.
It seems that there are so many possibilities with making cofactors cheap. Maybe it could help with the biomass coatings as well in the future. But for now, the most likely and most immediate application is for biofuels.