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.
‘A new sustainable method prepares polyalcohols from biomass using two consecutive metallic catalysts featuring molybdenum and ruthenium.’
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.
The team at ICIQ, led by Prof. Núria López, carried out the computer
simulations that helped improve the design of the catalysts. "Thanks to
the powerful resources of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and the
Spanish Supercomputing Network we were able to model catalytic processes
with an unprecedented level of precision and complexity," says López. "This new approach increases the potential applications of biomass in
industry," she concludes.