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Researchers refine process to produce fuel from plant material

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Lignin is difficult to break down and convert into useful fuel cc praetoriansentry
Lignin is difficult to break down and convert into useful fuel cc praetoriansentry

Researchers boiled raw wood sawdust with a metal catalyst and found that it was able to directly break down and convert lignin



Scientists from the University of Manchester and the East China University of Science and Technology have developed a technique to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuel from raw biomass, that circumvents the need to pre-treat the material.

Breaking down lignin, part of the trio of cellulose and hemicellulose in plant material that convert into fuel, requires the use of corrosive chemicals and intense energy. The scientists tackled this challenge by processing the biomass with a catalyst comprising niobium phosphate with small particles of platinum on the surface.

Researchers boiled raw wood sawdust for 20 hours at 190°C, and a pressure of 50atm and found that the catalyst was able to directly break down and convert the lignin. The team were able to observe under a ‘super microscope’ how the interaction between lignocellulose and the surface of the catalyst produced fuel.

Several implications of the study include its potential application in the development of catalysts for converting biomass into energy in the future and its efficacy for higher fuel yield, as the scientists produced record quantities of liquid hydrocarbon whereas up to a third of raw material can go to waste using a conventional method. Furthermore, the process is said to be almost carbon neutral. 

Dr Sihai Yang, lead author of the study, said: "The conversion of biomass into fuels typically requires separations and pre-treatments to the raw biomass, thus suffering high energy penalties. This catalyst showed exceptionally high activity in splitting the carbon-oxygen bonds, the most challenging step in the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass.

"This new catalytic process can therefore directly convert raw biomass to liquid fuels without separations or chemical pre-treatments, leading to significant potential energy savings."

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