Chemists discover method to improve biofuel and biomaterial production

In the quest for more viable sources of energy and matter, plant biomass underpins potential by serving as renewable resource for production of biofuel and biomaterials. However, so far, the complex chemical and physical interactions in plant biomass have been a challenge for post-harvest processing.

A new study covered in Nature Communications describes how carbohydrates interact with the aromatic polymer lignin to create plant biomass. The new information can help in the further development of better technology to use biomass for materials and energy.

The initiative involved examining the nanoscale formation of lignocellulosic components in multiple plant species, which includes softwood and hardwood species and grasses. The grasses include many agricultural crop such as maize, and are the primary raw material for fuel production in the U.S.

In fact, woody plants used in building construction materials have become promising candidates for next-gen biofuel to reduce the dependence on food crops.

The study led to the finding that hemicellulose xylan uses its levelled structure to join cellulose microfibrils and mainly depend on the latter’s non-flat structure to connect with lignin nanodomains. Nonetheless, in tightly packed woody matter, cellulose is also compelled to act as a secondary interacting substance with lignin.

The newly found, high-resolution data on the organization of lignin carbohydrate interfaces has amended the research of plant biomaterials. The use of spectroscopy method led to samples under study to be kept in their original status, without chemical use. The result of the study unveiled reasons for structural differences in cell wall construction among different plants.

Meanwhile, the team used their expertise in solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for comparing the nanoscale organization of lignin-carbohydrate interfaces across the three plant species and demonstrates the manner in which structures of biopolymers affect their connection with other cell wall components.