New Process Transforms Wood, Crop Waste Into Valuable Chemicals

Scientists today disclosed a new method to convert lignin, a biomass waste product, into simple chemicals. The innovation is an important step toward replacing petroleum-based fuels and chemicals with biorenewable materials, says Shannon Stahl, an expert in “green chemistry” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lignin is the substance that makes trees and cornstalks sturdy, and […]

Scientists today disclosed a new method to convert lignin, a biomass waste product, into simple chemicals. The innovation is an important step toward replacing petroleum-based fuels and chemicals with biorenewable materials, says Shannon Stahl, an expert in “green chemistry” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Lignin is the substance that makes trees and cornstalks sturdy, and it accounts for nearly 30 percent of the organic carbon in the biosphere. Stahl, senior author of a new report in the journal Nature, notes that lignin is a waste product of the paper industry, where cellulose is the valuable product. “Lignin is burned as a low-value fuel, but if biofuels are to become a reality, we need to get more value from lignin,” he explains.

Lignin is a complex material containing chains of six-carbon rings. These rings, called “aromatics,” could be the basis for a sustainable supply of useful chemicals — but only if the chains of lignin can be broken down into the individual units.

“Lignin is the only large volume renewable feedstock that contains aromatics,” says Stahl. “Aromatics are used to make many things, from plastic soda bottles to Kevlar to pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Today, the aromatics are almost exclusively derived from petroleum. We need to find an economical way to convert lignin to value-added materials.”

Unfortunately, lignin is highly resistant to breakdown into the valuable subunits, especially in a cost-effective way. “People are constantly reminding me of the old adage, ‘You can make anything from lignin, except money,'” he quips. Today’s report may change that perception. In work funded by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at UW-Madison, Stahl and his colleagues show that high yields of the aromatics may be obtained by exposure of lignin to oxygen followed by treatment with a weak acid under mild conditions.

From Science Codex: http://www.sciencecodex.com/new_process_transforms_wood_crop_waste_into_valuable_chemicals-144728

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