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Found: A greener way to process wood for biofuel

woodScientists at Queen’s University in Belfast say they’ve found a new eco-friendly way to dissolve wood that could be used to produce biofuels, textiles, clothes and paper.

Héctor Rodríguez and Robin Rogers from the University’s School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering worked along with The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to come up with a more cost- and energy-efficient way of processing wood.

Currently, wood is broken down mainly by the Kraft pulping process, which was developed in the 19th century and uses a wasteful technology relying on polluting chemicals. The method continues to be used as it’s difficult to break down and separate the different elements of wood, and alternatives have been hard to come  by.

The Queen’s researchers found that chips of both softwood and hardwood dissolved completely in ionic liquid under only mild conditions of temperature and pressure. By controlled addition of water and a water-acetone mixture, the dissolved wood was partially separated into a cellulose-rich material and pure lignin.

The new process is more environmentally-friendly than the current method as it uses less heat and pressure and produces very low toxicity while remaining biodegradable.

“This is a very important discovery because cellulose and lignin have a wide variety of uses,” said Rogers. “Cellulose can be used to make products such as paper, biofuels, cotton and linen, as well as many other commodity materials and chemicals. Lignin can be used to create performance additives in various applications, such as strengthening cars and airplanes with a fraction of the weight of conventional reinforcement materials. It is also a source of other chemicals which are mainly obtained from petroleum-based resources.”

“The discovery is a significant step towards the development of the biorefinery concept, where biomass is transformed to produce a wide variety of chemicals,” said Rodríguez. “Eventually, this may open a door to a truly sustainable chemical industry based on bio-renewable resources.”

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