/2016-03-31 / Lennart Ljungblom

Research: New catalyst breaks down biomass for fuel

For the first time, scientists have overcome the challenge of breaking down raw biomass without the need for chemical pre-treatment, and have produced record high amounts of clean liquid hydrocarbon fuel as a result, reports researchers from The University of Manchester and East China University of Science and Technology. The results, published in Nature Communications, show that the used niobium phosphate platinum complex was able to directly break down and convert the lignin, which potentially offers the future development of catalysts for converting biomass into fuel.

Lignin, one of the three major components of biomass, the other are Cellulose and hemicellulose, is a challenge to the production of biofuels. It is difficult to break down and convert into useful fuel, often requiring high levels of energy or the use of corrosive chemicals.

A team of scientists from The University of Manchester and East China University of Science and Technology stewed a catalyst – made up of the metal complex niobium phosphate, with small particles of platinum dotted across the surface – with raw wood sawdust for 20 hours at 190 degrees Celsius, and a pressure of 50 atmospheres.

Dr Yang used the Science & Technology Facilities Council’s ISIS Neutron and Muon source – often described as a ‘super-microscope’ – to study the biomass and catalyst at the molecular level. Using an instrument called TOSCA, Dr Yang and ISIS scientist Dr Stewart Parker used neutrons to see how a model of lignocellulose interacted with the surface of the catalyst to produce useful fuel.

“The conversion of biomass into fuels typically requires separations and pre-treatments to the raw biomass, thus suffering high energy penalties. This catalyst showed exceptionally high activity in splitting the carbon-oxygen bonds, the most challenging step in the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass. This new catalytic process can therefore directly convert raw biomass to liquid fuels without separations or chemical pre-treatments, leading to significant potential energy savings,” says Dr Sihai Yang, lead author of the study. /2016-03-31 / Lennart Ljungblom