To address energy costs rising and the rapidly emerging effects of burning fossil fuels on the global climate, new tools are being sought to enable a switch from fossil-to renewable carbon (biomass) for the production of chemicals and liquid fuels. Most liquid fuels in widespread use and nearly all our manufactured materials, from gasoline and gallon jugs to countertops and clothes, start with petroleum – crude oil. Developing the tools from fossil fuels to renewable sources of carbon for all these components of daily life is necessary.
Now, researchers have developed a chemical method that can access renewable energy from plant matter that could lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.
Most efforts to date have focused on the largest component of biomass: carbohydrates. Lignin, the other major fraction, has potential as a carbon-rich feedstock to make both renewable fuels and chemicals, but its diverse, strong linkages make it recalcitrant.
Ned Jackson, a professor of organic chemistry in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University, and his former graduate student Yuting Zhou have developed a chemical method that enables electricity and water to break the strong chemical bonds in biomass or plant matter. This electrocatalytic process could be applied to lignin, a carbon-rich biomass component that is usually discarded or simply burned as a byproduct of making paper. This new tool also has the potential to destroy environmental pollutants.
The use of biomass energy has the potential to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The global goal is to tap into both the carbon and the energy stored in biomass to enable it to replace petroleum. New efficient methods are needed to break this complex, tough, low-energy material down into the building blocks for fuels and products. Specifically, tools are needed to disconnect the strong chemical bonds that bind it together while retaining and even enhancing as much of the carbon and energy content as possible.
“One of the things that drive us is the idea that our main use of petroleum is the fuel that is burned to produce energy, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” Jackson said. “The new science is a step toward extracting useful carbon compounds to displace some fraction of the fossil petroleum that we use today.”