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Research duo develop new green way to synthesize vanillin from sawdust

Posted June 21, 2013

FTIR spectra of the standard vanillin (a) and the oxidation product (b). Credit: arXiv:1306.2442 [physics.chem-ph]

FTIR spectra of the standard vanillin (a) and the oxidation product (b). Credit: arXiv:1306.2442 [physics.chem-ph]

Chemical researchers D K Abdullah and Ahmad Shamsuri of University Putra Malaysia have found a way to synthesize vanillin from sawdust in an environmentally friendly way. In their paper they’ve uploaded to the preprint serverarXiv, the two describe how they used an ionic liquid to dissolve lignin found in rubber tree sawdust to produce vanillin.

Vanilla is a flavoring found naturally in some orchids—it’s the ingredient that gives fudge its kick. Its popularity has grown over the years to the point where demand now far exceeds the amount that can be extracted from the delicate flower pods. For that reason, manufactures have looked for ways to produce it artificially. A method of using lignin found in sawdust was developed and put into use, but soon fell into disfavor due to toxic byproducts. Another method, still in use, was developed based on a petrochemical material called guaiacol, but it’s expensive and tied to oil price fluctuations. For that reason, scientists have continued to look for a cheaper, less environmentally hazardous way to use the lignin found in wood products.

In this new effort, the researchers looked to ionic liquids—salts in liquid form. Using them in commercial applications is still relatively new as they are generally quite toxic. Recently, however, developments in chemistry have led to some types that are less reactive and are therefore safer and cleaner to use. Abdullah and Shamsuri thought one of these, 1,3-dimethylimidazolium methylsulphate might be used to help synthesize vanillin.

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