Everyone knows that our raw material resources, such as oil, are limited. Reason enough to think about alternatives for a wide variety of applications. The annual production of around 400 million metric tons of polymers, for example, is still extracted for the most part from crude oil. This may soon change in this market, which is considered one of the most significant in the chemical industry. Researchers from the Faculty of Applied Sciences at the  Cologne University of Applied Sciences have developed a process for using linoleic acid – which can be obtained from vegetable oils by hydrolysis and distillation – as a new source for bio-based polymer intermediates. Consequently, it will be possible to dispense with the use of that black gold in the production of polymers as it will be replaced in the future by native vegetable oils such as sunflower or safflower oil.

“Our focus is on the development of sustainable and environmentally friendly syntheses that adhere to the twelve principles of green chemistry.”

… states project manager Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schörken from the Faculty of Applied Natural Sciences at the TH Cologne. “Instead of crude oil, we want to use native vegetable oils such as safflower oil, which contains about 70 percent linoleic acid. We want to modify the fatty acids in such a way that we are able to produce new bi-functional polymer intermediates.” And he adds: “These intermediates can be used, for example, to produce high-performance polyamides and polyesters. In addition, the synthesis process produces fragrances and aromas that can be used in perfumes and flavorings.”

High level of interest among industry and consumers

The aim is to develop a combination of biotechnological and chemo-catalytic processes that will provide new access to key industrial intermediates. One undergraduate and two doctoral students are working together at the Faculty of Applied Sciences in Leverkusen. Anna Coenen and Valentin Gala Marti are researching new biotechnological synthesis routes in Prof. Dr. Schörken’s research group. In other words, they are studying the chemical and/or biotechnological modification of linoleic acid so that this can be used as a polymer intermediate. Jan Drönner, a member of Prof. Dr. Matthias Eisenacher’s group, has joined the project team to work on the development of chemo-catalytic syntheses.

“There is a great deal of interest among industry and consumers for products based on renewable raw materials. Bio-based intermediates that are similar to petrochemical products or at least similar in their functional properties are therefore very likely to be implemented in the chemical industry within the foreseeable future,” said Prof. Dr. Matthias Eisenacher from the Faculty of Applied Sciences.

At this early stage of the project, the researchers are still unable to predict when the first linoleic acid-based product will be launched on the market. However, they are confident that this will happen as there are other polymers already available which are made from renewable raw materials, including products based on fatty acids.

Green Chemistry research in Cologne

Dr. Oliver Thum, Head of Functional Solutions Research at Evonik Performance Materials GmbH, and Dr. Henrike Brundiek, Head of Research at Enzymicals AG, are contributing their expertise to the project as members of an industrial advisory council. Evonik is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of polyamide intermediates and bio-based polyamides. Enzymicals offers their recognized expertise in the application of enzymatic processes for the synthesis of complex chemicals on an industrial scale.

The interdisciplinary research project aims to further strengthen Cologne Technical University’s expertise in biotechnology and green chemistry. At the same time, the scientists want their development process, known as Linopol, to contribute to more environmentally friendly processes in the chemical industry. This will lead to the establishment of long-term, interdisciplinary research in the field of sustainable processes at the Faculty of Applied Natural Sciences at the TH Köln in Leverkusen. The “Linopol” project is funded to the tune of 530,000 euros by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).