Polyalcohols are widely used in candy and gum because they produce a sensation of freshness in our mouth and they don't contribute to tooth decay. Despite not being totally calorie-free sweeteners, polyalcohols are
widely used in the food industry.
Some of these polyalcohols may be found in nature. However, isolation is uncommon, and industrial synthesis is often preferred. Normally, industries use biochemical processes where enzymes prepare polyalcohols from sugars. But these systems are far from ideal; they require meticulously controlled temperatures, concentrations, and pH, which hinder big-scale production.
Now, scientists at ETH and ICIQ came up with a solution based in heterogeneous catalysis, a common approach in industry - oil cracking, car catalysts, synthesis of ammonia are just some examples. The idea combines a first step where sugar atoms are reorganized thanks to a molybdenum-based catalyst and a second hydrogenation step catalyzed by ruthenium. This method allows researchers to obtain valuable polyalcohols like mannitol or ribitol from cheap and widely available products like glucose or arabinose.