Humans can’t digest cellulose. Similarly, we’ve found it hard to efficiently break down cellulose in biomass for energy applications, until now. Researchers show a more efficient breakdown of cellulose than current methods that require energy-intensive pretreatment steps to separate the parts that can be easily broken down from those that cannot, consuming more energy than they yield. Here, no pretreatment steps are required.
In this novel method, the researchers feed sawdust directly into their reactor with catalysts, molecules that speed up the reaction, let it react for a few hours and end up producing the basic building blocks for fuels as well as other industrially useful things like degreasing agents. The trick is a new chemical pathway for breaking down the main component of sawdust, cellulose, which they achieve by using two non-mixing phases (organic and water-based) instead of the usual one phase, in conjunction with careful temperature control and the use of a catalyst. The catalyst might cause concern because it can be expensive and requires careful disposal, but the researchers show that the catalyst can be reused with minimal reduction in yield each time. Overall, this study is important and presents an exciting finding for biomass-to-fuel conversion!
Edited by SITN Waves Editor Ankita Shastri and co-authored by Dr. Caitlin Howell. Many thanks to Dr. Caitlin Howell for her contribution, expertise and insight on the article. Caitlin Howell is a Wyss Technology Development Fellow at Harvard University.
Original scientific article- Op de Beeck, Beau, et al., “Direct catalytic conversion of cellulose to liquid straight-chain alkanes,” Energy & Environmental Science, 2015.