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These chemical devices can access renewable energy from plant matter, which could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels – ScienceDaily


With rising energy costs and the rapid impact of burning fossil fuels on the global climate, researchers have never felt a greater need to find pathways to truly renewable products and fuels.

“In the United States, we use 20 million barrels of oil a day; that’s about a fifth of the world’s consumption,” said Ned Jackson, a professor of organic chemistry at Michigan State University’s College of Natural Sciences. “All of our liquid fuels and almost all of our manufactured materials, from gasoline and gallon jugs to countertops and clothing, start with oil — crude oil.”

Tools need to be developed to transition from fossil fuels to renewable carbon sources for all these components of daily life. But at the most optimistic projections, Jackson said, “What we can extract annually from biomass in the U.S. contains about two-thirds less carbon than the crude oil that the country uses.”

Jackson and his former graduate student Yuqing Zhao, now a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, developed a chemical method that allows electricity and water to break the strong chemical bonds in biomass, or plant matter. This “electrocatalytic” process can be applied to lignin, a carbon-rich component of biomass that is usually discarded or simply burned as a byproduct of paper production. This new tool can also destroy environmental pollutants.

The study was published on April 19, 2022 in the journal Communications of nature.

The global goal is to use both the carbon and the energy stored in biomass so that it can replace oil. But efficient new methods are needed to break down this complex, durable, low-energy material into building blocks for fuels and products. In particular, the tools are needed to break apart the strong chemical bonds that bind it together, storing – and even increasing – as much carbon and energy as possible.

“One of the things that drives us is the idea that our primary use of oil is as a fuel that is burned to produce energy, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” Jackson said. “The new science is a step toward extracting beneficial carbon compounds to displace some of the fossil oil we use today.”

Part of this research was supported by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). GLBRC is managed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and brings together more than 400 scientists, engineers, students and staff across disciplines from institutions such as MSU. One of GLBRC’s goals is to develop sustainable biofuels.

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Materials is provided Michigan State University. Originally written by Emily Lordich. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.

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