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Microreactors: Small scale chemistry could lead to big improvements for biodegradable polymers

Using a small block of aluminum with a tiny groove carved in it, a team of researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Polytechnic Institute of New York University is developing an improved "green chemistry" method for making biodegradable polymers. Their recently published work* is a prime example of the value of microfluidics, a technology more commonly associated with inkjet printers and medical diagnostics, to process modeling and development for industrial chemistry.

"We basically developed a microreactor that lets us monitor continuous polymerization using enzymes," explains NIST materials scientist Kathryn Beers. "These enzymes are an alternate green technology for making these types of polymerswe looked at a polyesterbut the processes aren't really industrially competitive yet," she says. Data from the microreactor, a sort of zig-zag channel about a millimeter deep crammed with hundreds of tiny beads, shows how the process could be made much more efficient. The team believes it to be the first example of the observation of polymerization with a solid-supported enzyme in a microreactor.

The group studied the synthesis of PCL,** a biodegradable polyester used in applications ranging from medical devices to disposable tableware. PCL, Beers explains, most commonly is synthesized using an organic tin-based catalyst to stitch the base chemical rings together into the long polymer chains. The catalyst is highly toxic, however, and has to be disposed of.

Modern biochemistry has found a more environmentally friendly substitute in an enzyme produced by the yeast strain Candida antartica, Beers says, but standard batch processesin which the raw material is dumped into a vat, along with tiny beads that carry the enzyme, and stirredis too inefficient to be commercially competitive. It also has problems with enzyme residue contaminating and degrading the product.

By contrast, Beers explain

Contact: Michael Baum
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

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Microreactors: Small scale chemistry could lead to big improvements for biodegradable polymers
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