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Catalytic conversion of sugars to acrylonitrile

By Mary Page Bailey |

Acrylonitrile (ACN) — a precursor in nearly all carbon fibers — is typically produced from propylene and ammonia, but a new method uses biomass-derived second-generation sugars. The process was developed by Southern Research (Durham, N.C.; www.southernresearch.org) and seeks to provide a more sustainable drop-in source of ACN. In this three-step process (diagram), aqueous lignocellulosic sugars are converted to multifunctional alcohols, which undergo dehydration to acrolein before a final ammoxidation step to yield ACN. This continuous fixed-bed process has a small footprint that would fit well into chemical-processing sites while utilizing a versatile feedstock, says Bill Grieco, vice president of energy and environmental activities at Southern Research. “We see high selectivity and high conversion in this process without the downstream separations that biological processes typically have to deal with,” he explains. Each reaction step uses a heterogeneous catalyst; the first two steps involve newly developed catalysts, and the third step uses an established catalyst that has been adapted to accommodate this particular process. The team has evaluated the process using a wide range of sugar feedstocks. “Basically, it doesn’t…
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