MADISON, Wis. – Scientists today disclosed a new method to convert lignin, a biomass waste product, into simple chemicals. The innovation is an important step toward replacing petroleum-based fuels and chemicals with biorenewable materials, says Shannon Stahl, an expert in “green chemistry” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Lignin is the substance that makes trees and cornstalks sturdy, and it accounts for nearly 30 percent of the organic carbon in the biosphere. Stahl, senior author of a new report in the journal Nature, notes that lignin is a waste product of the paper industry, where cellulose is the valuable product. “Lignin is burned as a low-value fuel, but if biofuels are to become a reality, we need to get more value from lignin,” he explains.
Lignin is a complex material containing chains of six-carbon rings. These rings, called “aromatics,” could be the basis for a sustainable supply of useful chemicals — but only if the chains of lignin can be broken down into the individual units.
“Lignin is the only large volume renewable feedstock that contains aromatics,” says Stahl.crop waste, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation