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A friendly way of synthesizing vanilla flavouring from sawdust

VanillinThe world seems to have an insatiable appetite for vanilla, some of it for the ‘white’ vanilla-flavoured ice-cream that everyone loves to eat on hot days.  Unfortunately there are not enough vanilla pods to go round.  We need maybe ten times as much as is being produced.  There is a synthetic approach, making vanillin from the lignin in wood pulp, but the lignin has needed a mixture of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulphide to oxidize, both highly corrosive and requiring strong acids to neutralize the mixture.  This is so environmentally unfriendly that it is rarely used. Ahmad Shamsuri and D K Abdullah at University Putra Malaysia have now announced a new method using 1,3-dimethylimidazolium methylsulphate, a room temperature liquid that is relatively benign.  When the lignin is dissolved in this and oxygen bubbled through, vanillin can be filtered off.  This offers a cheaper alternative to other ‘green’ but expensive ways of synthesizing vanillin, and holds out the prospect of changing the economics of its production.  And of course to secure our future supplies of flavoured ice-cream.

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