Researchers Derive New Method for Turning Plant Materials Into Better Green Energy
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Researchers at Michigan State University have developed a new chemical method to break down the strong chemical bond in plant matter using electricity and water that has the added bonus of destroying pollutants that are a byproduct of most fuels.
As nations across the globe set goals for reaching carbon neutrality in the decades ahead, researchers are trying to find ways to tap into both the carbon and energy stored in biomass and turn it into forms that can replace fossil fuels.
One of the main challenges, however, has been to identify new, efficient methods for breaking down complex and tough plant materials into the basic building blocks for fuel and products.
Specifically, much of the work has involved looking for “tools” that can “disconnect” the strong chemical bonds that bind plant material together, while retaining — and even enhancing — as much of the carbon and energy content as possible.
The Michigan State University researchers believe they’ve found an answer in an “electrocatalytic” process that could be applied to lignin, a carbon-rich biomass component that is usually discarded or simply burned as a byproduct of making paper.
The research was conducted by Ned Jackson, a professor of organic chemistry in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University, his former graduate student Yuting Zhao, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, Grace Klinger, Eric Hegg, and Christopher Saffron.
It was published in the April 19, 2022, edition of Nature Communications, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by Nature Research.
The findings were then distributed by Science Daily, a website that aggregates press releases and publishes them in lightly edited versions.
“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,” said Jackson in an interview with Emilie Lorditch, a “strategic storyteller” at Michigan State. “The new science is a step toward extracting useful carbon compounds to displace some fraction of the fossil petroleum that we use today.”