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Cracking lignin to biofuel in a single step

Lignin is a bulky chain of molecules found in plant biomass and difficult to extract and transform to biofuels and biochemicals due to its complex structure. In a new method developed by an international team of researchers headed by EPFL in Switzerland have found that the addition of formaldehyde could convert up to 80 percent of the lignin into molecules for the production of biofuels and bioplastics.

Lignin extracts with (left) and without (right) formaldehyde (photo courtesy Alain Herzog/J. Luterbacher/EPFL).

Lignin extracts with (left) and without (right) formaldehyde (photo courtesy Alain Herzog/J. Luterbacher/EPFL).

Lignin is an enormously complex biopolymer, filling the hard wall that surrounds each plant cell and makes up almost a third of plant biomass. Its molecular structure gives it an energy density 30 percent greater than that of the sugars that are traditionally processed into biofuel. The problem is that lignin is difficult to extract and transform. Due to its instability, lignin usually rapidly gets destroyed during its extraction and most researchers have failed to efficiently break it apart for upgrade into fuels or chemicals.

Now, an international team of researchers led by Jeremy Luterbacher at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Lausanne Switzerland, has shown that they can easily break lignin apart simply by adding the chemical formaldehyde to the process. Formaldehyde is one of the most widely used chemicals in industry, and it is simple and cheap to produce. The researchers found that formaldehyde stabilises lignin and prevents it from degrading, leading to high yields of building blocks that can be used to make substitutes for petrochemicals. These yields were 3-7 times higher than those obtained from lignin without formaldehyde. The results have been published in Science.

Scaling up

– Depending on the wood used we get between 50 and 80 percent. The chemistry is relatively straightforward; the real challenge is actually finding investors for a pilot facility to demonstrate this, said Jeremy Luterbacher, who became known in 2014 for developing a method for extracting sugars from plants safely and cheaply.

According to Luterbacher the market is difficult for sustainable energy largely because of inconsistent political support and widely varying energy prices. Investors for such innovative platforms are hard to come by in an uncertain market, especially considering the competition of well-established fossil fuels.

– The technology looks really good. If the global political establishment sent a consistent message about moving away from fossil fuels, then investors would take notice. But I think Switzerland is a great place to get started. The Swiss have been unwavering supporters of clean energy and could help demonstrate new technologies, and so I’m quite optimistic about the future, said Luterbacker.

This work involved a collaboration of EPFL’s Institute of Chemical Engineering (ISIC) with the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the US Department of Energy and Purdue University. It was funded by the Swiss Competence Center for Energy Research (Biomass for a Swiss Energy Future); the Swiss National Science Foundation, EPFL and the US Department of Energy, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels. EPFL has submitted a patent application based on this work.

5532/AS

 

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