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Institute for Integrated Catalysis

Catalysis Process for Producing Propylene Glycol Recognized

Propylene Glycol
Propylene glycol, used to manufacture the chemicals needed to produce everyday industrial and consumer products, has historically only been produced from petroleum. The Propylene Glycol from Renewable Sources process offers an environmentally friendly, commercially viable alternative by converting plant-based, seed-oil-derived glycerol, sugars, or sugar alcohols to propylene glycol.

When you combine unique catalysis capabilities with solid research and development expertise, excellent industrial contacts, and plenty of hard work, great things happen. Take, for example, the team of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) chemical engineers and scientists who developed propylene glycol from renewable sources (PGRS), a catalytic process that offers an environmentally friendly, commercially viable method for converting plant-based, seed-oil-derived glycerol, sugars, or sugar alcohols to propylene glycol.

The PGRS development team from PNNL and commercial partner Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) were among five finalists for the 2013 Kirkpatrick Award for Chemical Engineering Achievement. This prestigious award, which has been awarded biannually since 1933 by Chemical Engineering magazine, recognizes and honors the most noteworthy chemical engineering technology commercialized anywhere in the world during the two years before a given award year.

Here's why PGRS is so valuable: up to 2.5 billion pounds of petroleum are used each year to meet the worldwide demand for propylene glycol, a commodity chemical used in everyday products, such as liquid detergents, pharmaceuticals, and plastics. PGRS is the first cost-effective, bio-based process deployed at an industrial scale that produces propylene glycol meeting all of the same specifications as that produced from petroleum.

Furthermore, PGRS is economically competitive with petroleum-based methods and results in up to 61 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In 2006, the technology was licensed to ADM, which designed, engineered, and commissioned a new 100,000 metric-ton-per-year production facility in Decatur, Ill.

Part of the reason for this success is that it took place within a national laboratory.

"The success of this technology started with PNNL having the people and equipment necessary to be a success, especially the people," said PNNL commercialization manager Eric C. Lund, who also was named on the award nomination. "We were able to put together an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers with the expertise and knowledge to address all elements of the research&emdash;from catalyst design and synthesis to building and operating bench-scale reactors to analysis. To that, ADM added their outstanding skill in reaction scale-up and capability in design, construction, and operation of commercial-scale facilities to make it a commercial success. ADM has really been a fantastic commercial partner."

The other team members nominated were chemist John Frye and retired PNNL researcher Jim White. The ADM team included Kevin Martin, Paul Bloom, Michael Kruley, and former PNNL researcher Todd Werpy.

In addition to the PGRS team from PNNL and ADM, this year's finalists were Braskem, Eastman Chemical Company, Genomatica, and Rive Technology. The winner, announced last September during the ChemInnovations Conference and Expo in Galveston, Texas, was Genomatica, who with partner DuPont Tate & Lyle BioProducts, successfully commercialized the production of bio-based butanediol. More information on the finalists is available at

This was not the first recognition for PGRS and its developers. They also won an FLC Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer and an R&D 100 Award for their roles in taking the impactful PGRS process from the lab to market, were featured in the Association of University Technology Managers 2012 The Better World Report, and were selected as runners up in the Wall Street Journal's 2012 Technology Innovation Awards.

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