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Corn yields another useful product

Cortright and Dumesic

Research scientist Randy Cortright and Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor James Dumesic discovered another unique way to use corn. (large image)


An industrial chemical found in antifreeze, de-icing fluids and liquid detergents could soon stand alongside animal feeds, sweeteners and cooking oil as a commercial product made from corn.

Chemical engineers Randy Cortright and James Dumesic have invented a catalytic process for converting the corn-derived compound, lactic acid, into the chemical polypropylene glycol. More than 450 tons of polypropylene glycol are used in the United States annually.

Unlike current processes for manufacturing polypropylene glycol, which make use of petroleum-based starting materials, this advance taps into a low-cost, renewable resource available in surplus right now. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than a billion bushels of corn went unused last year.

"This [technology] provides a sustainable method of producing important chemicals," Cortright said. It also promises to reduce reliance on imported oil and open new markets for U.S.-grown corn.

A chain of processes links corn to polypropylene glycol. It begins with fermentation of the corn-derived sugar glucose into lactic acid, followed by separation and purification of the acid. Cortright and Dumesic's method completes the critical last step by using a copper catalyst in the presence of hydrogen gas to chemically transform lactic acid into polypropylene glycol.

The approach is more cost-efficient than past methods, Cortright said. "We're using a relatively inexpensive metal, running the reaction at lower [hydrogen] pressure and we get 100 percent conversion," of the lactic acid, with fewer unwanted byproducts like alcohols.

Cortright and Dumesic's research builds upon the work of Homer Adkins, a UW-Madison chemistry professor from 1919-49. At a time when most chemicals were produced from agricultural products rather than oil, Cortright explained, Adkins was the first to use copper catalysts to turn lactic acid into propylene glycol. "It feels like we've come full circle," Cortright said, "We enhanced the technology, but the basic ideas were known 70 years ago."