Synthetic rubber and plastics used for manufacturing tires, toys, and myriad other products are produced from butadiene, a molecule traditionally made from petroleum or natural gas. But those humanmade materials could get a lot greener soon, thanks to the ingenuity of a team of scientists from three U.S. research universities.

The scientific team from the University of Delaware, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Massachusetts has invented a process to make butadiene from renewable sources such as trees, grasses, and corn.

"Our team combined a catalyst we recently discovered with new and exciting chemistry to find the first high-yield, low-cost method of manufacturing butadiene," says Dionisios Vlachos, the Director of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI) based at the University of Delaware. "This research could transform the multi-billion-dollar plastics and rubber industries."

Butadiene is the chief chemical component in a broad range of materials found throughout society. When this four-carbon molecule undergoes a chemical reaction to form long chains called polymers, styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR) is formed, which is used to make abrasive-resistant automobile tires. When blended to make nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR), it becomes the key component in hoses, seals, and the rubber gloves ubiquitous to medical settings.

In the world of plastics, butadiene is the chief chemical component in acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), a hard plastic that can be molded into rigid shapes. Tough ABS plastic is used to make video game consoles, automotive parts, sporting goods, medical devices, and interlocking plastic toy bricks, among other products.

The past 10 years have seen a shift toward an academic research focus on renewable chemicals and butadiene in particular due to its importance in commercial products, Vlachos says.

"Our team's success came from our philosophy that connects research in novel catalytic materials with a new approach to the chemistry," says Vlachos. "This is a great example where the research team was greater than the sum of its parts."