Car tires are something that everyone is familiar with, but we don’t often think about what they’re made of. That may be changing as researchers invent new processes for making a key component of automobile tires – synthetic rubber – from sugar.
Sugar is a ubiquitous renewable resource as it can be derived from leftover agricultural products (i.e., cellulose) or produced directly from highly-concentrated natural sugar products like sugar cane or sugar beets. Traditional synthetic rubber, on the other hand, is produced from petroleum. The new process may have several advantages over the petroleum-derived process as it is low cost, renewable, and uses low-toxicity materials.
The research was led by Professor Paul Dauenhauer at the University of Minnesota through the Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP). The Mission of the CSP is to “…enable the efficient and economical conversion of natural and abundant molecules into tomorrow’s advanced polymers.” To accomplish these goals, they must use next-generation research tools to develop catalysts to perform efficient chemical transformations.
One of the enabling tools in Paul’s work was the Polyarc® System, which allows for fast quantification of molecules using gas chromatography and, for Paul, quick identification of the best catalyst to perform the desired reaction. The Polyarc enables these quick results by eliminating the need for calibration – a process that can take up to two weeks for complex mixtures.
The Polyarc reactor allowed Professor Dauenhauer and coworkers to complete the research and publish two papers on the production of isoprene and butadiene (two key components of synthetic rubber) in the timespan of about six months. Without the Polyarc, a similar study may have taken years to complete due to the complexity of the reaction products. This technology to produce synthetic rubber from sugar is featured on the University of Minnesota Technology Commercialization website and may lead to car tires being produced from renewable resources in the coming years. I am inspired by this research as it shows how the Polyarc is transforming the way research is performed and is enabling breakthrough technologies. I am excited to see what the future holds for Polyarc-enabled technologies.