UT-Led Research Benefiting Alternate Fuels, Materials

As interest in biofuels has surged in recent years, the question about how to best handle lignin—a material found in the cell walls of plants that is a byproduct of biofuel production—has become a primary concern.

Thanks to ongoing research being led in part by Art Ragauskas, UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Biorefining, an answer to that problem could be just over the horizon.

Ragauskas and his team at UT and ORNL have focused on finding a use for lignin, which would increase the overall profitability of manufacturing biofuels and make them more attractive to producers.

Currently, more than half of all lignin is treated as a waste product, so finding a use for it could have major implications.

“In addition to finding ways to improve the yield of fuel produced from it, lignin has shown potential for use as carbon fiber, plastics, membranes, and chemicals,” said Ragauskas, who also serves as a Professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

“So, really, you’re talking about not only improving the main focus of what lignin is used to make, but opening up a valuable new avenue for materials.”

The best way to understand lignin’s role might be to think of it as the substance that allows plant cells, and thus plants themselves, to hold their shape.

However, the same strength that is so beneficial to plants makes it difficult to fully process those pants into biofuels and results in excess waste product.

Studies have shown that in the most easy-to-use plants, lignin can be genetically modified to allow for greater processing into fuel. That would reduce the amount of waste and allow Ragauskas and other researchers more freedom in using the lignin byproduct.

“Anything that helps improve the ability to separate lignin from cellulose materials will, in turn, increase the usability of the lignin,” said Ragauskas. “That could come from genetic modification, from chemicals, from coming up with new processing techniques.

“The key is just finding ways to better remove those bonds and then to utilize this valuable resource in an innovative manner.”

The project is part of a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

 

CONTACT:

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)