From sugar to building blocks: interview with Mahmoud Sayed

Mahmoud Sayed, researcher at Lund University.

From sugar to building blocks: interview with Mahmoud Sayed

2020-04-16. Mahmoud Sayed came from Egypt in 2014 to do his PhD at the Division of Biotechnology at Lund University. He is active in STEPS work package one which has focus on the sustainable production of polymer building blocks from renewable feedstocks including surplus biomass streams and carbon dioxide using biological and chemical processes separately or as integrated processes.

Mahmoud Sayed says that the possibility of achievement of a green process under mild conditions for production of a molecule at high yield and selectivity will contribute to the reduction of toxic solvent usage, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and hopefully even the production cost of plastic production. Therefore, his work in STEPS focuses not only on the production of a new building block, but also on introducing a robust catalyst (chemical or biological) as well as upstream and downstream processes for the production of plastic building block chemicals.

His research in STEPS focuses on the molecule 5-Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) – both its production and valorization. HMF is a derived from  the most abundant sugars in biomass, but preferably from the fruit sugar, fructose.

– HMF production is very challenging due to its high instability and reactivity. Hence it can easily react with itself or the sugar used for the production. This can lead to the creation of unwanted side products.

– Currently, in STEPS we have managed to avoid all of these problems through developing a good process for the production and recovery of HMF at high yield and selectivity. Furthermore, the techno-economic analysis of this process is under investigation to take further step towards industrial scalability of our work.

– HMF is a great platform for exploring polymer chemistry. What other polymers can you create by developing new furan compounds? What can you learn by working with this molecule?

One of the furan compounds Mahmoud Sayed is currently working to develop out of HMF is 2,5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), which has recenty attracted great interest as a potential biobased substitute for terephthalic acid (TPA), which is used in large amounts in the production of PET (pol(ethylene terephthalate)), a commonly used polyester in drinking bottles and other products..

–In contrast to TPA, FDCA can provide a 100 percent biobased plastic, PEF (poly (ethylene furanoate)). PEF has a higher thermal stability, which makes it more durable and also more recyclable. PEF has even superior gas barrier properties, which is an important property for food packaging.

In the laboratory at Lund University, Mahmoud Sayed, and his colleague Rajni Hatti-Kaul, Director of the STEPS programme, have started to test different microorganisms and enzymes to convert HMF to FDCA. Since glucose is the abundant and common C6 sugar in all plants and trees, they are also looking at other routes to convert glucose to FDCA.

– I like applied science since one can test out new things. I can learn about microorganisms, but through STEPS, I also get a chance to find out more about polymer technology, and upstream and downstream plastic production and processes.

When asked why Mahmoud Sayed chose to work with biobased plastic, he replies

– There is a clear link between sustainability and plastics. We need to find other pathways to produce new materials. We also need to develop and identify a sustainable use of biomass in the future, and maybe our work with HMF and FCDA can contribute.