Swiss research discovers way to transform lignin into biofuel

Scientists at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have turned lignin into a source of biofuel by simply adding a common chemical

The patent-pending method that converts up to 80% of lignin into valuable molecules for biofuel and plastics and can be scaled up to industrial levels has been published in Science.

Lignin is an enormously complex biopolymer, filling the hard wall that surrounds each plant cell and making up almost a third of plant biomass.

Its molecular structure gives it an energy density 30% greater than that of the sugars that are traditionally processed into biofuel.

The problem is that lignin is difficult to extract and transform due to its instability as it usually gets rapidly destroyed during its extraction.

Most researchers have failed to efficiently break it apart for upgrade into fuels or chemicals.

Now, an international team of researchers led by Jeremy Luterbacher at EPFL, has shown that they can easily break lignin apart simply by adding the chemical formaldehyde to the process.

Formaldehyde is one of the most widely used chemicals in industry, and it is simple and cheap to produce.

The researchers found that formaldehyde stabilises lignin and prevents it from degrading, leading to three to seven times higher yields of building blocks that can be used to make substitutes for petrochemicals.

"Depending on the wood used, we get between 50 and 80%," said Luterbacher, who became known in 2014 for developing a method for extracting sugars from plants safely and cheaply.

"The chemistry is relatively straightforward. The real challenge is actually finding investors for a pilot facility to demonstrate this."

The market, he says, is difficult for sustainable energy largely because of inconsistent political support and widely varying energy prices.

Investors for such innovative platforms are hard to come by in an uncertain market, especially considering the competition of well-established fossil fuels.

"The technology looks really good," said Luterbacher. "If the global political establishment sent a consistent message about moving away from fossil fuels, then investors would take notice.”

Luterbacher finds Switzerland to be a possibly suitable place to start in, as the Swiss have been “unwavering supporters” of clean energy and could help demonstrate new technologies.

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