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Managing Editor  | October 2017

Researchers develop novel process for converting biomass at low temperatures

Many researchers are working with the complex natural polymer lignin, which is an abundant component of plants, to be the building block for materials such as plastic and scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy Ames Laboratory (Iowa) have developed a novel process for decomposing and stabilizing lignin chains that does not require high heat or high pressure.



The new process allows for the deomposition of lignin at low temperatures.
(Ames Laboratory)


According to a report from Ames Laboratory, the researchers used phosphate-modified ceria as a catalyst to combine the processes of breaking down the lignin chains and stabilizing the byproducts into stable, readily usable compounds.


As one of the researchers noted, “The interesting thing is that though there are two different types of chemical processes happening in a single material, they appear to be working synergistically, and are able to do that at a lower temperature.”


The scientists also worked with phenol, which an industrial precursor for producing nylon.


“This work used a catalyst made of ceria and palladium doped with sodium, which increased the reactivity of the process significantly,” the report explained. “They also eliminated the use of hydrogen, which is produced from steam-treatment of natural gas, and used an energy-conserving alcohol-based hydrogenation process instead.”


The phenol research was published in the Journal of Catalysis. The research about lignin was recently published by Journals of Materials Chemistry A. The abstract stated:


“Deposition of trimethylphosphate onto ceria followed by thermal treatment resulted in the formation of surface phosphates with retention of the ceria fluorite structure. The structural and chemical properties of the phosphate-functionalized ceria were studied using 31P solid-state NMR, XPS, zeta titration, ammonia thermal desorption, pyridine adsorption, and model reactions.


“The introduction of phosphates generated Brønsted acid sites and decreased the number of Lewis acid sites on the surface. The relative amount of Lewis and Brønsted acids can be controlled by the amount of trimethylphosphate used in the synthesis.


“Upon deposition of Pd, the multifunctional material showed enhanced activity for the hydrogenolysis of eugenol and guaiacol compared to Pd on the unmodified ceria support.


“This was attributed to the cooperativity between the Lewis acid sites, which activate the substrate for dearomatization, and the redox/Brønsted acid properties, which catalyze hydrogenolysis.”

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