Better Biomass Breakup Achieved Through Rocky Relationship Between Water and Solvent


Recently, scientists from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, or ORNL, have used neutron scattering and supercomputing to better understand how an organic solvent and water work together, to break down biomass. This process creates a pathway to improving the production of renewable biofuels and bioproducts. Keep reading for more details!

A Better Way to Break Down Biomass

This groundbreaking discovery was originally published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It discusses a previously unknown nanoscale mechanism that occurs during the deconstruction of biomass, and identifies the ideal temperatures for the process. 

Breaking plant material’s polymeric cellulose and hemicellulose components down into fermentable sugars, while removing the intact lignin—a structural polymer also found in plant cell walls—is necessary for producing biofuels. The intact lignin is used in value-added bioproducts like plastics. Liquid chemicals, also known as solvents, are often used during this process to dissolve the biomass into its molecular components. 

When mixed with water, a solvent called tetrahydrofuran (or THF) is very effective in breaking down biomass. Discovered by Charles Wyman and Charles Cai of the University of California, Riverside, the THF-water mixture produces a lot of sugars while preserving the structural integrity of lignin for use in bioproducts. It was this success of the cosolvents that originally intrigued ORNL scientists. 

Loukas Petridis of the University of Tennessee/ORNL Center for Molecular Biophysics and his colleagues first ran a series of molecular dynamics simulations on the Titan and Summit supercomputers at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. What did their simulations show? That THF and water separate at the nanoscale to form clusters in biomass. This particular phenomenon occurs at the tiny scale of three to four nanometers. For reference, a human hair is usually 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide. 

The scientists at the High Flux Isotope Reactor, a DOE Office of Science user facility at ORNL, overcame this obstacle, by using neutron scattering and a technique called contrast matching. Contrast matching selectively replaces hydrogen atoms with deuterium, a form of hydrogen with an added neutron. This makes specific components of the complex mixture more visible to neutrons than others. 

Thanks to this collaborative effort with biologists, computational experts, and neutron scientists, a large scientific question was answered, and now we have industry-relevant knowledge. These findings could further fuel discoveries about other solvents and help grow the bioeconomy.  
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