Research effort by PME and Argonne results in R&D 100 Award

A joint effort by the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago and the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has led to a prestigious R&D 100 Award and is expected to bring an innovation closer to market so it ultimately can be used in many industrial applications.

The R&D 100 Award, announced on Oct. 29, 2019, opened the door to strengthening collaboration on future projects between UChicago and Argonne’s Materials Engineering Research Facility (MERF).

“It is very exciting to have this joint work between the University of Chicago and Argonne honored in this way,” said Stuart Rowan, UChicago’s principal investigator on the project who also holds at staff position at Argonne. “It shows what can be done when the two organizations work closely together.”

Argonne and UChicago developed a “manufacturing  process for extracting high-quality cellulose nanocrystals from biomass.” The research team included Erik Dahl, a chemical engineer in Argonne’s Applied Materials Division (AMD); Kris Pupek, an organic chemist and group leader of the Process R&D and Scale-Up Group in AMD; Greg Krumdick, AMD director; and Rowan.

Cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) come from renewable resources and have many promising applications in materials synthesis, green catalysis, biosensing and more. CNCs can be used as a replacement for carbon fibers in composites, for energy storage and conversion, water purification, and many other applications.

However, the high cost of producing CNCs at a large scale, and the relatively poor quality of the product, impede commercial development. Argonne, UChicago and Aloterra Energy LLC then worked together to solve both problems.

Rowan started this research while at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and brought it with him when he was hired at Pritzker Molecular Engineering. UChicago researchers discovered a way to extract CNCs from Miscanthus x. Giganteus, a fast-growing grass, and the extracted CNCs exhibited desirable properties. However, the initial process developed at the bench lab scale was not suitable for large-scale production.

With this limitation in mind, in January 2017, Matthew Tirrell, dean of PME, brought together a group of researchers from UChicago and Argonne’s MERF. Rowan described to the Argonne team the work the UChicago team had done to extract and purify CNCs from the grass, which can grow as tall as 12 feet in just two seasons. The Argonne researchers believed they could help scale up the process.

“I got excited right away when I heard about the project,” Krumdick said. “This was our first bio process to scale. I realized it wouldn’t be easy, but I also knew my team had the skills to tackle this type of challenge.”

Building on the work of the UChicago team, Argonne scientists invented an optimized process and scaled it up to an economical manufacturing level. The process, known as Bio2Nano, converts noninvasive, abundant Miscanthus x. Giganteus into high-quality CNCs. By combining in-situ generation of a bleaching agent, bleaching, and hydrolysis into a single step, the novel process reduces materials and energy usage as well as waste generation.

After UChicago earned a patent for its initial process, Argonne filed for a patent for its improved process. The researchers are seeking additional funding to help build the pilot systems, said Krumdick.