Pacific Northwest National Lab’s Alan Zacher, engineer within the Energy and Environment Directorate and 2011 Inventor of the Year, recently took some time to discuss how applied research in renewable propylene glycol is changing the way major companies do business. Zacher and his team developed a soy-based substitute for a petroleum-based product that’s found in everything from lipstick to plastics.
This Q&A and video are part of the Lab Breakthrough series, which highlights innovations developed at the National Labs.
Question: In layman’s terms, what makes the breakthrough so exciting for industry and the consumer?
Alan Zacher: I’m excited because today we can buy things made with renewable propylene glycol (PG) instead of petroleum-made propylene glycol. We believe the industrial-size renewable propylene glycol plant constructed by ADM in 2010 is the first in the world. I really enjoy being a part of a renewable product that not only has real impact, but also does not drive up the price of non-renewable propylene glycol over the non-renewable alternative.
Q: What about your facilities’ specific resources made it the right place to develop this technology?
AZ: We have great tools to study the chemical reactions in producing renewable PG, from initial invention all the way to making it industrially practical. I use chemical reactors as small as a piece of spaghetti all the way to systems that would barely fit in your dining room. We also have robotic research tools that run 100 experiments at a time. But these are just excellent tools. It’s the people here that really make a difference—bringing creative people together to solve tough problems.
Q: What are the benefits of working with industry in applied research?
AZ: Applied research is where the magic happens. In pure research, new ideas can flourish without a focus on practicality. In industry, many improvements are minor because radical changes are often too risky and expensive. In applied research with industry, we can develop radical yet practical innovations that can impact our lives today.
Q: To what extent was this project interdisciplinary?
AZ: We have a mix of chemical engineers and chemists. It puts people together who understand “how” something works with those who understand “why” it works. Of course, we all have unique experiences and talents, which allows us to achieve much more together than any of us would have alone.
Q: I know that work often builds from other work in a standing on the shoulders of giants’ type of way. Are there any particular technologies or discoveries that act as a basis for your work?
AZ: This chemical reaction is actually simple and has been known about for a very long time. Our discovery was finding a way to do the chemistry efficiently and cheaply enough that it could compete with the price of PG made from petroleum, the only historically viable way! Also, biodiesel technology created interest in finding good uses for the byproduct glycerin, which we can use to make the PG. Our catalysts were initially discovered while looking for ways to make useful chemicals out of corn sugars and other bio based feeds. But, in all of this, we ultimately stand on industrial hydrogenation technologies (where hydrogen is used in a reaction) that have been used to make chemicals and modify foods for over a 100 years!
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