Science & Tech

UCSB Scientist Leads National Research Team in Sustainable Chemistry Investigation



Head investigator Peter C. Ford and a team of researchers from the University of Washington at St. Louis, University of California at Santa Barbara, Davis and San Diego recently started a project to redirect the chemical industry toward sustainability by developing new “feedstocks,” or the materials from which plastic and other products are made.

Their research mainly revolves around using carbon dioxide from power plants, chemical compounds from plants and wood, and renewable sources instead of oil to produce plastic bags, plastic pipes and other products.

“My goal is to go after the projects that will take the combined intellectual talent and experience that we have in this group, and appeal to their idealism — to take a chance and see if we can make a real impact,” Ford said in a press release.

In order to do this, the team hopes to develop new chemical resources from which these products will be made from. This feedstock research will be conducted in the new Center for the Sustainable Use of Renewable Feedstocks (CenSURF), which has been granted $1.75 million dollars over a course of three years by the National Science Foundation (NSF). They were one of the three of out 50 applicants chosen by the NSF to be funded for a sustainability project with the aim to establish a clean, safe and economical method of traditional chemical processes.

One of the greatest developments of this research is to trap carbon dioxide from fixed locations, such as power plants, and use it as a renewable feedstock instead of petroleum, which is non-renewable. To convert this carbon dioxide to ethylene, a great amount of energy has to be present. The researchers have agreed to not use fossil fuels — this would not be “sustainable” — but instead use solar electricity.

Another is to promote the use of biomass from plants and wood because they create necessary chemical compounds that are necessary. Using plants would be a completely natural alternative since they convert light energy into chemical energy.

A lot of these new processes that will be developed will use earth-abundant elements as catalysts instead of rare elements, such as platinum, in order to conserve the definition of sustainability and make sure that such rare elements, which do not renew themselves, will still be there for future generations.

“The real challenge will be the conversion of lignocellulose — a combination of the non-digestible biopolymers cellulose and lignin — to usable chemicals,” Ford said in a press release, “It’s fair to say that cellulose is the most plentiful biopolymer on the planet, and lignin is the second most plentiful. Lignin is a particularly tough challenge because it’s a very complex material. Part of our goal here is developing methodologies for converting lignin to simpler chemicals as starting points for the chemical industry to use.”

The team also aims to further educate the public, starting with students. CenSURF will conduct outreach programs for 12th graders and later develop upper-division college courses in sustainable energy.

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