Researchers create method to break down plant matter for energy

EAST LANSING, MI — With rising energy costs and the rapidly emerging effects of burning fossil fuels on the global climate, the need has never been greater for researchers to find pathways to products and truly renewable fuels.

“We use 20 million barrels of oil a day in the United States; that’s about one-fifth of global use,” said Ned Jackson, a professor of organic chemistry at Michigan State University’s College of Natural Science. “All of our liquid fuels and nearly all of our manufactured materials, from gasoline and gallon jugs to countertops and clothing, start with petroleum – crude oil.”

Developing the tools to switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources of carbon for all these components of daily life is necessary. But according to the most optimistic projections, Jackson said: “What we could harvest each year from biomass in the United States contains only about two-thirds the amount of carbon as the crude oil the nation uses. .”

Jackson and his former graduate student Yuting Zhao, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, developed a chemical method that allows electricity and water to break strong chemical bonds in biomass or matter. vegetable. This “electrocatalytic” process could be applied to lignin, a carbon-rich component of biomass that is typically discarded or simply burned as a byproduct of papermaking. This new tool also has the potential to destroy environmental pollutants.

The research has been published in the review Communication Nature.

A global goal is to harness both the carbon and energy stored in biomass to enable it to replace petroleum. But new, efficient methods are needed to break down this complex, tough, low-energy material into the building blocks of fuels and products. Specifically, tools are needed to disconnect the strong chemical bonds that bind it together, while retaining – and even enhancing – as much carbon and energy content as possible.

“One of the things that drives us is the idea that our primary use of petroleum is as 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 of the fossil oil we use today.”

Parts of this research were funded by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). The GLBRC is led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and brings together more than 400 scientists, engineers, students, and staff from different disciplines from institutions like MSU. One of the GLBRC’s goals is to develop sustainable biofuels.

– This press release was originally published on the Michigan State University website

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