Solar creeps into chemical production with new nylon synthesis process

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The need for chemical products accounts for about a quarter of the world’s energy demand. With most of that energy turned into heat for thermochemical reactions, researchers from New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering have developed a new type of reactor that uses renewable energy to generate electrosynthesis reactions.

The research paper Organic Electrosynthesis for Sustainable Chemical Manufacturing has been published in the inaugural issue of Trends in Chemistry, a review journal published by Cell Press.

At this first stage of their project, the researchers synthesized a precursor material for nylon – adiponitrile (ADN).

Joint research author Miguel Modestino and his collaborators focused on “greening” the most prevalent electrochemical reaction in today’s chemical manufacturing landscape: the process by which acrylonitrile (AN) is converted to ADN. The research was funded by the H&M Foundation, a non-profit group founded by the owners of the fashion chain.

Using their reactor, which consumes solar energy and plant waste, the researchers estimate electrosynthesis could be applied to manufacture around a third of chemical products, as well as generating new products, as that type of chemical transformation has been unused until now.

Commercialization hurdles

“As the availability of renewable energy soars, organic electrosynthesis – relying on electricity, not heat, to drive reactions – can now easily be generated via solar, wind, or renewable means,” the researchers wrote. Although scaling for industrial production poses problems, the researchers identified three multidisciplinary research areas that could provide the answers.

They suggest “boosting the electrochemical stability of the aqueous electrolyte solutions upon which electrosynthesis relies” could ameliorate one problem with the approach. Another potential solution involves “improving the solubility or organic molecules in aqueous electrolyte solutions,” and the team added, “developing strategies for mitigating unwanted reactions during electrochemical processes,” would help the technology become a viable candidate for mainstreaming.

The technology is employed by sustainable nylon startup Sunthetics, launched last year by a team including research co-author Daniela Blanco, Modestino and NYU Tandon graduate Myrian Sbeiti.

“We target large-scale problems such as a polluting chemical industry and develop strategies that help us design processes that are sustainable and efficient at the same time,” said Blanco. “The opportunity to launch start-ups and commercialize technologies like this one make our work more tangible and help us understand what is needed to bring lab-scale technologies to large-scale scenarios.”