Seeking new ways to make 1,3 propanediol from glycerol

Diminishing fossil fuels have led to a considerable increase in the production of biodiesel. One of the byproducts of the biodiesel industry is glycerol, and its disposal or conversion to valuable products is critical to ensure this industry remains sustainable. Glycerol can be converted into propanediol which has useful applications as a skin conditioning agent, humectant (moisturiser), fragrance ingredient, and solvent.

Mohammad Khan Salabat Khan, a research scholar with the IITB-Monash Research Academy, is working on a project sponsored by SABIC that will help convert glycerol to a version of this organic chemical compound called 1,3-propanediol.

Figure 1 : Conversion of Glycerol to 1,3-Propanediol

“To convert glycerol to 1,3-propanediol is challenging,” says Mohammad, “because it is more likely to form 1,2-propanediol when the reaction is carried out in the presence of hydrogen and some noble metal catalysts. In order to get 1,3-propanediol we need to make use of a combination of catalysts.”

A number of products can be formed from 1,3-propanediol—like polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT), composites, adhesives, laminates, coatings, moldings, aliphatic polyesters, co-polyesters, polyurethane, personal care products, detergents, electrical & electronics, etc.

1,3-propanediol is currently produced in two ways—using either a biocatalyst or a metal catalyst. Demand for this compound has been increasing continuously: from 60.2 kt in 2012, it is expected to reach 150 kt by 2019; the corresponding increase in price, according to estimates, would be from $MM 157 to $MM 560.

The IITB-Monash Research Academy is a collaboration between India and Australia that endeavours to strengthen scientific relationships between the two countries. Graduate research scholars like Mohammad study for a dually-badged PhD from both IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich their research experience.

Says Prof Murali Sastry, CEO of the Academy, “This institution was conceived as a unique model for how two leading, globally focussed academic organisations can come together in the spirit of collaboration to deliver solutions and outcomes to grand challenge research questions. Finding new ways to commercially produce 1,3-propanediol from glycerol will help make the oleochemical and biodiesel industries more sustainable. The increase in production of 1,3-propanediol will, in turn, reduce the cost of 1,3-propanediol derivatives, making commodity chemicals produced from 1,3-propanediol cheaper.”

“Of the two mega companies producing 1,3-propanediol,” adds a visibly excited Mohammad, “Shell uses the petroleum route while Dupont prefers the biological route. Both have their respective limitations—low selectivity, low conversion, large capital cost, etc. If our research can throw up a novel solution to produce this 1,3-propanediol, a third player like SABIC could enter the field.”

Now, if that’s not delivering a solution to a grand challenge research question, what is!

Research scholar: Mohammad Khan Salabat Khan, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Development of new heterogeneous catalyst for selective production of 1,3 propanediol from glycerol

Supervisors:Prof A K Suresh, Prof S M Mahajani, Prof J S Gharpure, Prof Huanting Wang, Dr Raj Deshpande (SABIC)

Contact details: aspathan1@gmail.com

This story was written by Mr Krishna Warrier based on inputs from the research student, his supervisors and IITB-Monash Research Academy. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy.