Clothes could one day be made of fruit peel, after local scientists developed a greener and more efficient way to make adipic acid - a major component of nylon.
Commercially, the acid is produced from petroleum-based chemicals. But the process emits a large amount of greenhouse gas, which contributes to global warming.
"Our fossil fuels are being depleted quickly, so producing adipic acid from petroleum-based chemicals might not be the best long-term option," said the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology's Dr Yugen Zhang, who led a team of four on the project.
The new process, which took almost two years to develop, makes use of mucic acid, which is obtained when fruit peel is reacted with enzymes. Further reaction with rhenium oxide produces an intermediate product which can be converted into adipic acid.
Scientists have found ways to produce adipic acid from the sugars in fruit peel before, but these involve harsh reaction conditions using high pressure hydrogen gas and strong acids.
"They are costly and unsafe," said Dr Zhang. "Existing methods of producing bio-adipic acid can only achieve a 60 per cent yield whereas our process can produce a 99 per cent yield," he added.
"It is much greener and highly efficient," he said.
Dr Zhang and his research team have already patented their new method in Singapore. But they hope to find an industrial partner to use the method in commercial production.
Commercialisation could take up to 10 years, he estimated.
Researchers will need to scale up their process in order to derive a production cost on a commercial scale.
"Our target is to make this process cost-competitive to the conventional process," Dr Zhang said.
This article was published on April 2 in The Straits Times.
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