The goal was simple: replace crude oil as the source for plastics, fuels and many other common chemicals with inexpensive, nonpolluting plant matter.
But breaking down glucose has proven especially complicated.
In this week's edition of the journal Science, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory now say they've discovered an effective way to convert nature's most abundant sugar to an alternative source for products typically made from petroleum.
"What we have done that no one else has been able to do is convert glucose directly in high yields to a primary building block for fuel and polyesters," said Z. Conrad Zhang, a scientist with the PNNL-based Institute for Interfacial Catalysis, who led the research.
Until now the problem has been low yields of commercially viable products and too many byproducts, he said.
Zhang and his colleagues said they were able to produce HMF yields of more than 70 percent from glucose and nearly 90 percent from fructose while leaving only traces of acid impurities.