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A greener way of making vanilla

Thousands of food products have the flavor of vanilla, but don’t let your senses fool you: Artificial vanilla flavoring is used more than 99% of the time. That’s because the aromatic beans—like those shown here—are notoriously expensive because vanilla orchids must be pollinated by hand. The primary component of vanilla, vanillin, can be synthesized in the lab, but the process is inefficient and generates wastewater that must be treated. Now, researchers have developed a new, more environmentally friendly way of creating vanillin, they report in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research. The scientists developed a catalyst—composed of abundant elements like silica and copper—that could effectively separate vanillin from other compounds in a bath of boiling water. They also showed that this catalyst could be reused four times with no loss in efficacy, unlike traditional catalysts that have to be replaced after one use. The new technique also doesn’t produce extremely high pH wastewater, which typically has to be neutralized with hydrochloric acid before being released into the environment. As a proof of concept of their technique, the researchers produced a very small amount of liquid vanillin—less than a gram. But they suggest their methodology can be scaled up for cost-effective commercialization because they’ve already determined the optimum conditions—like temperature and catalyst concentration—for recovering vanillin.