ERC Researchers Make Substantial Progress Toward Eventual Production of Sustainable Chemicals

Achievement date: 

Researchers at the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC), an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) headquartered at Iowa State University, have made substantial progress toward producing aldehydes and acids by selective oxidation of alcohols using supported metal catalysts.


Oxidation of multifunctional alcohols (e.g., glycerol, glucose) to value-added acid products in an environmentally friendly way is a major opportunity for the production of sustainable chemicals. For example, catalytic oxidation of one type of alcohol yielded an acid product that can then be polymerized to a final product, which is considered a biorenewable replacement for a plastic made from fossil fuel resources. The ultimate goal of the work is to develop a robust, active catalyst for selective alcohol oxidation reactions relevant to efficient production of high-value biorenewable chemicals.


The production of biorenewable chemicals by chemical catalysis requires an understanding of both the function of the metal catalyst and the type of substrate, which is produced via biological conversion of sugars. This work focuses on the selectivity of alcohol oxidation, the activity of the solid metal catalyst, and the stability of the catalyst over long time scales. To aid the design of new catalysts, the mechanism of alcohol oxidation at basic conditions in liquid water was elucidated and a comparison of the alcohol oxidation activity over different supported metals for a variety of substrates was evaluated.

The performance of supported metal catalysts (i.e., rates and product selectivities) in the oxidation of multifunctional substrates, such as α,ω di-alcohols, has also been studied. A critical review of alcohol oxidation catalysis (written by Davis, et al.) included a significant amount of CBiRC research and was highlighted with a graphic on the cover page of Green Chemistry (see figure).