February 12, 2009

Process turns raw biomass into biofuel

U.S. biochemists say they have developed a two-step chemical process that can convert cellulose in raw biomass into promising biofuels.

University of Wisconsin researchers said the new process is unprecedented in its use of untreated, inedible biomass as the starting material. They said the key to the new process is the first step, in which cellulose is converted into the platform chemical 5-hydroxymethylfurfural from which a variety of valuable commodity chemicals can be made.

Other groups have demonstrated some of the individual steps involved in converting biomass to HMF (5-hydroxymethylfurfural), starting with glucose or fructose, said Professor Ronald Raines, who led the study. What we did was show how to do the whole process in one step, starting with biomass itself.

Raines and graduate student Joseph Binder said they developed a unique mix of solvents and additives -- for which a patent is pending -- that has an extraordinary capacity to dissolve cellulose. And since cellulose is one of the most abundant organic substances on the planet, it is widely seen as a promising alternative to fossil fuels.

The research is detailed in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.