Chemists from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have devised a new process that significantly increases the yield of sugars from plants.
According to the researchers, this could help improve the production of renewable fuels, chemicals and other materials.
Producing fuels and chemicals from biomass like wood and grasses has been touted as one of the most promising solutions for building a renewable economy.
This green process involves breaking down or ‘deconstructing’ plants to produce single carbohydrates, mostly in the form of simple sugars like xylose and glucose.
However, despite their value, current processes for plant deconstruction often end up degrading them.
Now chemists from the lab of Jeremy Luterbacher have developed a chemical method that stabilizes simple sugars and prevents them from being degraded.
According to the researchers, the new method ensures that chemists will no longer have to balance deconstruction of the plant with avoiding degradation of the product.
The new process changes the chemical susceptibility of the sugars to dehydration and degradation by latching aldehydes onto them.
Luterbacher’s team contends that the process is reversible, implying that the sugars can be retrieved after deconstruction.
The chemists have so far tested their method on beechwood.
They first turned beechwood into pulp using a paper-making technique called organosolv which solubilizes wood into acetone or ethanol.
And in order to latch aldehydes onto the sugars, the scientists mixed the wood with formaldehyde.
A demonstration of the same helped them to recover over 90% of xylose sugars as opposed to only 16% xylose without formaldehyde.
When they broke down the remaining pulp to glucose, the carbohydrate yield was over 70%, compared to 28% without formaldehyde.
“Before, people had always been looking for often expensive systems that limited sugar degradation,” says Luterbacher. “With stabilization, you worry less about this degradation and this frees you up to develop cheaper and faster transformations for plants, potentially accelerating the emergence of renewable consumer products.”
Image and content: EPFL Laboratory of Sustainable and Catalytic Processing