Currently, our society depends on petroleum as both a source of energy and as a prime material for the production of chemical compounds like plastic. The Argentinian researcher Danilo Cantero proposes that we substitute this use of petroleum with sugars obtained through recycling biomass. To achieve competitive costs, Cantero has developed a revolutionary cellulose hydrolysis method through the use of supercritical water. This breakthrough has earned Cantero recognition as one of MIT Technology Review, Spanish Edition´s Innovators Under 35 Argentina and Uruguay 2016.
One of the areas currently being explored to combat climate change is the concept of giving biomass waste from industries like agriculture and paper a second life. Biomass contains molecules derived from sugars that can be used directly as an energy source or as a starting point for chemical synthesis processes. But cellulose hydrolysis, one of the main components of biomass, requires a slow and energy-hungry enzymatic process.
Cantero has developed a much quicker and effective alternative which does not consume as much energy. "The key resides in taking advantage of the characteristics of supercritical fluids, which combine the best properties from both states of the material, liquid and gaseous," the researcher explains. "The cellulose does not dissolve in liquid water under normal conditions, but it does dissolve in supercritical water."
Water which is subjected to more than 250 atmospheres of pressure and heated to more than 370 °C produces hydrolysis in just a few milliseconds. Thanks to the ability to control the reaction time at this scale, instead of the days which are required for the traditional method, Cantero´s reactor reaches an efficiency of 98%.
The result of this process is a combination of sugars that can serve as the basis for synthesizing polymers during the production of plastic, which can be produced using waste products like beet pulp, wheat bran or other byproducts from industries like agriculture, wood-processing or paper production instead of petroleum.
The method developed by Cantero is the fruit of his doctorate work at the University of Valladolid (Spain) and a subsequent doctorate at Cornell University (United States). This young, Argentinian researcher now works for the company Renmatix, a pioneer in the use of supercritical water for harnessing the energetic potential of biomass, where he is implementing his technology.
In the words of the researcher from the Institute of Chemical Technologies at the Polytechnical University of Valencia (Spain) and Spain´s Higher Council of Scientific Research as well as jury member for the Innovators Under 35 Argentina and Uruguay 2016 awards, Antonio Chica, "the fact that a company has taken interest in the process developed by Cantero is indicative of the interest that the idea has generated and its possibilities to be implemented at an industrial level."
Discover all of the winning projects from Innovators Under 35 Argentina and Uruguay 2016.