Biomass Fuel Conversion Improved Through Supercomputing
Fuel produced from forestry or agricultural waste, also known as lignocellulosic biomass, has always been a champion in the process of reducing the use of fossil fuels. However, plant cell walls have some innate defense system, which makes the process of breaking them down to be costly and complicated.
To understand how plant biomass could be a game-changer and can be further broken down efficiently, a research team from the University of California, Riverside joined forces with groups at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Central Florida to create a chemical roadmap to breach the defenses.
For access the energy-rich sugars found in the plant cell walls to be possible, they renewed focus on solvating lignin, a complex polymer is found in plant cell walls that act as a natural shield, preventing both chemical and biological attack. Lignin is also useful in avoiding commercial enzymes from digesting cellulose that makes up the bulk of sugars in biomass.
Previously, different specialized chemicals and pretreatment methods had been used to improve enzyme access to cellulose; however, they were ineffective at removing lignin. Using strong acids, ionic liquids, ammonia, and sulfite treatments have somehow developed the digestibility of cellulose; however, the methods still leave lignin behind making cellulose costly to recover. Other methods used co-solvents like ethanol and acetone solvate to remove lignin. They still required very high reaction temperatures, which also cause the remaining sugars to degrade.
Due to this, economically viable methods of transforming biomass into biofuels are yet to be discovered. The assistant research engineer at the Center For Environmental Research And Technology in the Marlan called Charles Cai and Abhishek S. Patri, a doctoral student in chemical and environmental engineering and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering at UC Riverside, led a team of researchers to focus on identifying highly specialized co-solvents, substances added to a primary solvents to make it useful and can facilitate milder temperature salvation, releasing lignin from plant cell walls.