MSU researchers create method for breakdown of plant materials for earth-friendly energy

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With energy costs rising and the rapidly emerging effects of burning fossil fuels on the global climate, the need has never been greater for researchers to find paths to products and fuels that are truly renewable.
Ned Jackson, professor of organic chemistry in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University, said: “We use 20 million barrels of oil a day in the US, which equates to about a fifth of the world’s usage.

“All our liquid fuels and nearly all of our manufactured materials, from gasoline and gallon jugs to countertops and clothes, start with petroleum — crude oil.”
Developing the tools to move from fossil fuels to renewable sources of carbon for all components of daily life is necessary. But according to the most optimistic projections, Jackson said that “What we could harvest annually from biomass in the US only has about two-thirds as much carbon in it as the crude oil that the nation uses.”
Jackson and his former graduate student, Yuting Zhao, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, 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 by-product of making paper. This new tool also has the potential to destroy environmental pollutants.

A global goal is to tap into both the carbon and the energy stored in biomass to enable it to replace petroleum. But 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.
Jackson said: “One of the things that drives us is the idea that our main use of petroleum is fuel that is burned to produce energy, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The new science is a step toward extracting useful carbon compounds to displace some fraction of the fossil petroleum that we use today.”

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


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