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Catalytic Conversion of Renewable Resources into Bulk and Fine Chemicals


Several strategies can be chosen to convert renewable resources into chemicals. In this account, I exemplify the route that starts with so‐called platform chemicals; these are relatively simple chemicals that can be produced in high yield, directly from renewable resources, either via fermentation or via chemical routes. They can be converted into the existing bulk chemicals in a very efficient manner using multistep catalytic conversions. Two examples are given of the conversion of sugars into nylon intermediates. 5‐Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) can be prepared in good yield from fructose. Two hydrogenation steps convert HMF into 1,6‐hexanediol. Oppenauer oxidation converts this product into caprolactone, which in the past, has been converted into caprolactam in a large‐scale industrial process by reaction with ammonia. An even more interesting platform chemical is levulinic acid (LA), which can be obtained directly from lignocellulose in good yield by treatment with dilute sulfuric acid at 200°C. Hydrogenation converts LA into gamma‐valerolactone, which is ring‐opened and esterified in a gas‐phase process to a mixture of isomeric methyl pentenoates in excellent selectivity. In a remarkable selective palladium‐catalysed isomerising methoxycarbonylation, this mixture is converted in to dimethyl adipate, which is finally hydrolysed to adipic acid. Overall selectivities of both processes are extremely high. The conversion of lignin into chemicals is a much more complicated task in view of the complex nature of lignin. It was discovered that breakage of the most prevalent β‐O‐4 bond in lignin occurs not only via the well‐documented C3 pathway, but also via a C2 pathway, leading to the formation of highly reactive phenylacetaldehydes. These compounds went largely unnoticed as they immediately recondense on lignin. We have now found that it is possible to prevent this by converting these aldehydes in a tandem reaction, as they are formed. For this purpose, we have used three different methods: acetalisation, hydrogenation, and decarbonylation. These reactions were first established in the tandem reactions of model compounds, but subsequently, we were able to show that this works equally well on organosolv lignin and even on lignocellulose.

Catalysis is the key technology for the conversion of biomass‐derived platform chemicals into existing bulk chemicals. Highly selective low‐temperature conversions make these multistep routes more attractive than single‐step fermentation or high‐temperature gasification or pyrolysis routes. Development of high yielding conversion of lignin into chemicals is still needed to complete the biorefinery concept.

Authors:   Johannes G. de Vries
Journal:   The Chemical Record
Year:   2016
Pages:   n/a
DOI:   10.1002/tcr.201600102
Publication date:   20-Oct-2016
Facts, background information, dossiers
  • aldehydes
  • adipic acid
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