Along with rising prices at the pump, the cost of some petroleum-based chemicals used in plastics manufacturing has skyrocketed. Accordingly, researchers have sought to improve a process for turning fructose, a common plant sugar, into 5-hydroxymethylfurfuran (HMF), an alternative, nonpetroleum precursor for chemicals such as polyesters. The reaction occurs in water, which creates several unwanted compounds. To obtain pure HMF, chemists have had to redissolve it in a solvent that is hard to boil away, making the process costly and inefficient. A group from the University of Wisconsin-Madison doubled the reaction's overall yield, to 80 percent, by adding a series of compounds to suppress the reactions that create by-products. Moreover, the additives increase HMF's affinity for a solvent that boils at a low temperature, making the final product easier to obtain. Distill the essentials from the June 30 Science.
This article was originally published with the title "Pre-Plastic Fantastic" in Scientific American 295, 3, 36 (September 2006)