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Renewable acrylonitrile production

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Science  08 Dec 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6368, pp. 1307-1310
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan1059

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A sweet source to make acrylonitrile

Much of the attention directed toward displacing petroleum feedstocks with biomass has focused on fuels. However, there are also numerous opportunities in commodity chemical production. One such candidate is acrylonitrile, a precursor to a wide variety of plastics and fibers that is currently derived from propylene. Karp et al. efficiently manufactured this compound from an ester (ethyl 3-hydroxypropanoate) that can be sourced renewably from sugars. The process relies on inexpensive titania as a catalyst and avoids the side production of cyanide that accompanies propylene oxidation.

Science, this issue p. 1307

Abstract

Acrylonitrile (ACN) is a petroleum-derived compound used in resins, polymers, acrylics, and carbon fiber. We present a process for renewable ACN production using 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3-HP), which can be produced microbially from sugars. The process achieves ACN molar yields exceeding 90% from ethyl 3-hydroxypropanoate (ethyl 3-HP) via dehydration and nitrilation with ammonia over an inexpensive titanium dioxide solid acid catalyst. We further describe an integrated process modeled at scale that is based on this chemistry and achieves near-quantitative ACN yields (98 ± 2%) from ethyl acrylate. This endothermic approach eliminates runaway reaction hazards and achieves higher yields than the standard propylene ammoxidation process. Avoidance of hydrogen cyanide as a by-product also improves process safety and mitigates product handling requirements.

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