Nature is predigesting our gasoline… or something like that. Researchers have found that you can get fuel out of some tough material by treating it with a chemical mixture that breaks it down:
But most of the biomass produced in agriculture and forestry lies unused in more-complex chains of sugars, for example lignin and cellulose.
These tough, recalcitrant materials, which provide structural support for wood, grasses and the non-edible parts of crops, are hard to break down. Producers of cellulosic ethanol currently spend 15–20% of their fuel costs on acids and enzymes to loosen and chew up the fibres.
By adding a dash of dilute sulphuric acid to a colourless, herbal-smelling liquid called ?-valerolactone (GVL), chemists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have now invented a process that they say easily extracts sugars from lignin and cellulose fibres.
“I think there is a great potential for this approach in biomass processing,” says Harvey Blanch, a bioenergy researcher at the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California, who was not involved in the work.
…Luterbacher says that his team’s enzyme-free process has plenty of potential for improvement. “The point is that we have a new technology that we have been developing for a year, and it’s comparable [in cost] to enzymes that have been in development for decades,” he says.