Shape-selective zeolite catalysis for bioplastics production

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Science  03 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6243, pp. 78-80
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa7169

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Synthesizing more sustainable plastics

Zeolites can help synthesize cheaper plastic precursors from biologically sourced feedstocks. Producing sustainable plastics must compete with more cost-effective petrochemical-based synthesis routes. Dusselier et al. developed a zeolite-based strategy to catalyze the transformation of microbially produced lactic acid into lactide, a difficult-to-synthesize precursor of biodegradable polylactic acid plastics. The selectivity of nearly 80% is based on active site spatial confinement in the zeolite micropores. This step substantially simplifies current high-cost synthesis routes and generates nearly zero waste using current reactor technologies.

Science, this issue p. 78


Biodegradable and renewable polymers, such as polylactic acid, are benign alternatives for petrochemical-based plastics. Current production of polylactic acid via its key building block lactide, the cyclic dimer of lactic acid, is inefficient in terms of energy, time, and feedstock use. We present a direct zeolite-based catalytic process, which converts lactic acid into lactide. The shape-selective properties of zeolites are essential to attain record lactide yields, outperforming those of the current multistep process by avoiding both racemization and side-product formation. The highly productive process is strengthened by facile recovery and practical reactivation of the catalyst, which remains structurally fit during at least six consecutive reactions, and by the ease of solvent and side-product recycling.

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