Research: Project 3

Improving the digestibility of  lignocellulosic biomass for the production of biofuels.

Lignocellulose

Lignocellulose-derived biofuels have the potential to replace a very large percentage of the liquid transportation fuel currently used throughout the world. Both woody biomass and many types of grasses represent a vast source of fermentable carbohydrates, and they are envisioned as key feedstocks for the sustainable production of biofuels in the United States. Unfortunately, the lignin and the higher order structures found in all plant cell walls results in “recalcitrance” of the biomass, thereby preventing facile utilization of the carbohydrates. In nature, microbes successfully degrade plant cell walls using a variety of oxidative approaches. These strategies include the release of reactive oxygen species produced by redox-active metals and metalloenzymes.

As part of a multidisciplinary team within the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (www.glbrc.org), we are developing new abiotic catalytic oxidative treatments that mimic certain features of these successful biological approaches In particular, we have developed a compelling new technology that utilizes copper catalysts and hydrogen peroxide under alkaline conditions, and this pretreatment method results in significant improvements in the enzymatic digestibility of a number of biomass feedstocks. Current work in our lab seeks to understand the mechanism by which enzymatic hydrolysis is improved and to develop even more efficient catalytic systems.