Iowa State University Shanks Research and development at the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) has identified a method for the selective dehydration of glucose and starch to produce furan derivatives such as 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). HMF is a potentially valuable platform chemical that cannot be made cost effectively. This new process provides a cost-effective way of making HMF, opening the way to other valuable chemical intermediates that could replace key petroleum-based building blocks used in production of plastics, fine chemicals, diesel fuel and fuel additives. This new glucan-based method is more commercially viable than those previously developed because it uses glucose or starch to yield a high concentration of HMF. CBiRC is collaborating in this effort with a small business partner, GlucanBio, which has a licensing agreement with the University of Wisconsin, and the Grow Iowa Values Fund, which has provided some initial start-up funding. This effort will modify the initial research at the University of Wisconsin to provide a different precursor chemical feedstock. Combining these two has the potential to create chemicals that have great commercial value.

Intellectual Merit The overarching goal of this project is to explore the technical issues surrounding the processing conditions for HMF production. This will permit a techno-commercial feasibility study of scale-up production of HMF from glucose and starch. Key deliverables will be a full commercialization analysis of HMF from biomass. This will be used to support the development of a more complete business plan and commercialization proposal for HMF production. Specific objectives are: (i) Comparison of glucose and starch versus fructose catalysis with solvent extraction per Dumesic methods, (ii) Kinetics understood and optimized for the conversion of glucose to HMF in a batch reactor system, (iii) Kinetics understood and optimized for the conversion of glucose to HMF in a flow reactor system, (iv) Demonstration of a solid acid catalyst for the conversion of monosaccharides and oligosaccharides to HMF, (v) Evaluation of techno-commercial potential by estimating costs of production in optimized system, and (vi) Build the business case for a $10m investment in a pilot plant.

Broader Impact

This work trains graduate and undergraduate students in targeted research affiliated with a startup entity. The effort will identify a path to a cost-effective production of HMF, which has massive potential to create a bio-based resource for resins, fuels, fuel additives, polymers, alkanes and solvents. Thus the project is primarily focused on addressing HMF production from glucose, starch and cellulose as the cheapest bio-based source. Based on a techno-commercial analysis of HMF production from fructose, HMF can be produced from glucose or starch at a minimum selling price of $3-4 per gallon. Further cost improvements are likely through other process improvements. Building upon this least-cost source of biomass using a known catalytic process means that a low-cost-of-production HMF can then be used to directly create an interesting array of molecules from the parent species. Thus it becomes possible to conceive of a commercially viable path to an array of valuable bio-based products.

Project Report

Furan is a molecule consisting of a five-membered aromatic ring with four carbon atoms and one oxygen atom. The class of compounds containing such rings is also referred to as furans. 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) is a potentially valuable furan based chemical that currently cannot be made cost-effectively at scale. While an ample amount of fundamental work has been performed on the conversion of glucose to HMF, seldom has this work taken into account scale-up and ultimate production of the molecule. We have identified a potential commercially viable method for the selective conversion of glucose and starch to produce HMF. In addition, the same reaction system can be utilized for the production of other furan-based molecules from cellulose and hemicellulose. The goal of this project was to explore the techno-commercial potential surrounding the production and downstream processing conditions for HMF and other furans using technology developed within the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC). Care was taken to only research strategies that were potentially feasible at an industrial production scale. The cost-effective production of HMF and other furan chemical intermediates will open the path to making furan-based building blocks used in creation of high value products. Furan chemical intermediates drive a multi-billion dollar markets in plastics, spandex and agricultural arenas. Glucan Biorenewables, LLC is a start-up entity that was founded in April 2012 with furan technology from the laboratory of Dr. James Dumesic of University of Wisconsin-Madison and intellectual capital from CBiRC at Iowa State University. Initial discussions between Glucan Biorenewables and companies including DuPont, BP, BASF and Shell have validated interest in biorenewable chemicals and specific interest in the furan platform. Glucan Biorenewables has engaged companies like Pennakem and International Furan Chemicals (IFC) in discussions regarding the existing $450M global furfural market. Both companies have confirmed that the current dynamics of the furfural market will support a North American source of supply. The furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) market has also been validated by companies such as Coca Cola and DANONE who are actively seeking 100% biorenewable materials for bottling by replacing polyethylene terephthalate (PET) with polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a plant-based plastic produced from FDCA.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Engineering Education and Centers (EEC)
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Deborah J. Jackson
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Iowa State University
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