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MSU researchers create method for breaking down plant materials for earth-friendly energy

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 ways to produce products and fuels that are truly renewable.

Headshot of Ned Jackson
MSU organic chemist Ned Jackson and a former graduate student, Yuting Zhou, have developed a novel tool that breaks the strong chemical bonds in biomass or plant matter down into building blocks for fuels and other products. Courtesy photo

“We use 20 million barrels of oil a day in the United States.; that’s about a fifth of the world’s usage,” said Ned Jackson, a professor of organic chemistry in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University. “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 these components of daily life is necessary. But according to the most optimistic projections, Jackson said, “What we could harvest annually from biomass in the United States 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 Zhou, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, have developed a mild 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 byproduct of making paper. This new tool also has the potential to destroy environmental pollutants.

The research was recently published on in the journal Nature Communications.

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 other 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.

“One of the things that drives us is the idea that our main use of petroleum is for energy (fuel) that is burned, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” Jackson said. “The new science is a step toward extracting useful carbon compounds to displace some fraction of the fossil petroleum that we use today.”  


Banner image: Biomass conversion holds promise as a more sustainable source of platform chemicals, but limitations in the ways in which lignin can be broken down is a current bottleneck. Credit: Marek Studzinski/unsplash.