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Mini-cellulose molecule could revolutionise biofuel production

Chemical engineers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst have discovered a 'mini-cellulose' molecule that behaves in the same way as cellulose when heated to a high temperature.

Complex chemical reactions that take place during high-temperature biofuel processes such as pyrolysis or gasification, have remained unknown, as wood molecules are too large, and the reactions are too complicated for computer models to track. However, with the discovery of this molecule (α-cyclodextrin), the possibilities of using computer simulations to study biomass have significantly increased.

Paul Dauenhauer, assistant professor of chemical engineering and leader of the UMass Amherst research team says, ‘we calculated that it would take about 10,000 years to simulate the chemical reactions in real cellulose. The same biofuel reactions with 'mini-cellulose' can be done in a month!’

Using these faster computer simulations, Dauenhauer’s team has been able to track the conversion of wood to the chemical vapour products. These reactions include creating furans, molecules that are important for the production of biofuels. Reaction models of wood conversion will allow for improvements to be made to the design of biomass reactors thus optimising biofuel production.

‘We want to maximize our new pathway to produce furans and minimize the formation of gases such as CO2,’ says Dauenhauer.

A new experimental technique called thin-film pyrolysis enabled the discovery. It involves creating sheets of cellulose, heating them rapidly at over 1 million °C per minute, which then creates volatile chemicals - the precursors of biofuel.

Dauenhauer has received several high-profile grants in the past year including a five-year, $800,000 (€608,121) Early Career Award in Basic Energy Sciences from the DOE in May 2011.