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February 2, 2023

Painting with corn

Engineers from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, have developed a new chemical process allowing for renewable acrylic chemicals to be manufactured using corn.

Credit: U.S. National Science Foundation

For the last century, acrylic chemicals have been used to make paint, cosmetics, and even your soft contact lenses. But what if they were made of bio renewable material instead of fossil fuels? We'll explore the future of renewable acrylic chemicals in the U.S. National Science Foundation's "Discovery Files."

The global market for acrylic acid was valued by some analysts at over 14 billion dollars in 2022 and is expected to continue to grow. Acrylates have uses in everyday items such as adhesives, the superabsorbent materials used in diapers, and soda bottles.

Using tools at the NSF supported Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, engineering and materials science researchers are working to transform how plastics are made and have developed a new chemical process that starts with corn instead of fossil fuels.

This formulation converts lactic acid-based chemicals derived from corn into acrylic acid and acrylates with a substantially higher performance than previous catalyst examples. This technology is highly efficient, reducing byproduct waste and substantially reducing manufacturing costs, the first time a bio renewable process has beaten fossil fuels in both areas.

This technology has already been licensed by a startup company. They are further developing this technology, pointing toward a commercial future and a wide range of more environmentally friendly products.

To hear more science and engineering news, including the researchers making it, subscribe to "NSF's Discovery Files" podcast.

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