Researcher earns $5.6 million grant to replace petroleum-based chemicals in household items

Some of the most popular everyday products — such as plastics, packaging materials and personal care products — are derived almost entirely from petroleum-based chemicals.

But that could soon change.

Bala Subramaniam

A KU-led research team has received a $5.6 million grant to develop clean technologies to convert biomass into chemicals that could ultimately replace the petroleum-based chemicals currently used in many household items.

Bala Subramaniam, director of the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis at KU, has been awarded the grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop sustainable catalytic processes that would enable biorefineries to convert biomass from nonfood crops and agricultural leftovers into bio-derived chemicals. Once the technologies are developed, bio-based chemicals could become sustainable substitutes for petrochemicals in products such as laundry detergent, bathroom cleaners and beauty products.

“Shoes, paint, the food packaging in your refrigerator and the refrigerator itself are all made with petroleum-derived chemicals,” said Subramaniam, the Dan F. Servey Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “Each year, manufacturers use millions of barrels of petroleum crude to make these items. The CEBC is developing catalytic processes to convert biomass into biochemicals that can replace oil-based chemicals in these everyday products. This means sustainable bio-based products and decreased dependency on oil. And because crude oil supplies are finite, this is the only way to produce everyday chemicals in the long term.”

As part of the project, the CEBC will partner with Archer Daniels Midland Co., a global leader in biomass production and biorefining headquartered in Decatur, Ill. KU and ADM will invest $1.4 million in matching funds, bringing the total project value to nearly $7 million. The CEBC/ADM project was one of only seven to be funded by USDA from a pool of approximately 300 applications. The grants were announced by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu during a conference call highlighting Obama administration efforts to advance clean energy and reduce America's dependence on imported oil.

In addition to producing bio-based products, the technologies being developed by the CEBC/ADM team could have enormous benefits for Kansas biorefineries and rural communities. While oil refineries have long been able to produce two categories of products — fuels and chemicals — co-producing commodity chemicals and fuels from biomass requires new technologies. The technologies being developed by the CEBC/ADM team would enable biorefineries to expand to chemicals, which produce about 10 times more value than fuels. The chemical portfolio in the CEBC/ADM proposal has a potential annual global value of $127 billion.

“Technologies for producing bio-based chemicals have perhaps the biggest potential for driving rural economic development in Kansas,” Subramaniam said. “Biorefineries are already in Kansas because of our agricultural infrastructure and abundant biomass, and they produce mostly ethanol, biodiesel and lignin. The technologies we envision will produce high-value chemicals that will enable biorefineries to operate profitably, resulting in economic development in Kansas, including rural Kansas.”

Industry experts estimate that if biorefineries are able to mass produce biochemicals, 40,000 direct biorefinery jobs and 120,000 indirect jobs will shift to rural areas nationwide. Kansas has 15 operating biorefineries and is a top five state for biomass production.

“Kansas is already a leader in biorefining and biomass production, so there’s no reason the state can’t be a leader in biochemicals once these catalytic technologies are developed,” said Julie Goonewardene, associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship. “The vision is to have people equate Kansas with biochemicals the same way they equate Silicon Valley with computer technology.”

The challenges being addressed by the CEBC/ADM team are akin to what the petroleum industry faced almost a century ago in its quest to produce chemicals. Back then, the collaboration of academic and industry researchers revolutionized petroleum refining and spurred economic growth. Similarly, this CEBC project envisions the development of a thriving biorefining industry in agro-based economies.

In addition to spurring rural growth, the technologies being developed by the CEBC could position uniquely trained KU students to take the lead in implementing this technology once they graduate. It could also mean business development for Lawrence, as companies explore partnerships with the CEBC.

“Companies benefit by being near research universities,” Goonewardene said. “Whenever KU demonstrates this type of leadership, there’s the potential for companies to set up operations in Lawrence to be near KU technology. Dr. Subramaniam’s project is exactly the type of research that could bring companies here, especially given the proximity of the lab and office facilities managed by our local Biosciences and Technology Business Center that were opened on west campus last year. Our vision is to develop the technologies in Lawrence and commercialize them in rural Kansas.”

“ADM is excited to partner with Dr. Subramaniam and the University of Kansas CEBC team on this project,” said Todd Werpy, vice president of research for ADM. “By combining our industrial acumen with CEBC’s reaction engineering expertise, we can advance the development of bio-based chemical technologies that can serve as replacements for petroleum-based chemicals.”

Campus closeup
Matthew Gillispie, clinical assistant professor in the Schiefelbusch Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic and the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing: Sciences and Disorders
Read more

Poll


The University of Kansas prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, religion, sex, national origin, age, ancestry, disability, status as a veteran, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, retaliation, gender identity, gender expression and genetic information in the University’s programs and activities. The following person has been designated to handle inquiries regarding the non-discrimination policies and is the University’s Title IX Coordinator: the Executive Director of the Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access, IOA@ku.edu, 1246 W. Campus Road, Room 153A, Lawrence, KS, 66045, (785)864-6414, 711 TTY.