Connecting Biomass and Petroleum Processing with a Chemical Bridge

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Science  30 Jul 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5991, pp. 522-523
DOI: 10.1126/science.1191662

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Petroleum is not only the primary feedstock for liquid fuels but also the basis for most of the chemicals and polymers that we use (1, 2). Continuing questions about the longevity and stability of petroleum supplies, as well as the environmental impacts of its production and use, have driven the development of alternatives such as agricultural or woody biomass. Biomass could supplement petroleum as the main feedstock for fuel and chemical production (3, 4), but it will be necessary to develop large-scale fermentation infrastructure for fuels, as well as new synthesis routes to chemicals that start with carbohydrates (57). If carbohydrates could be converted to compounds with fewer oxygenated groups that reacted more like petroleum, they could supply the petrochemical industry plants with a renewable feedstock. Two recent papers by Bond et al. (8) and Lange et al. (9) now suggest that levulinic acid (LA), a dehydration product of simple sugars like glucose, can meet this need (see the figure). Incorporation of LA as an intermediate allows use of catalytic conversion processes fully compatible with the infrastructure of the chemical industry.