A new method of converting biomass into liquid fuel overcomes the challenge of breaking down raw biomass without the need for chemical pretreatment.

Scientists from the University of Manchester and East China University of Science and Technology said that their process produces record high amounts of clean liquid hydrocarbon fuel, and is an important development in the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The woody material in plants that is used to produce fuel is made of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Lignin is difficult to break down and convert into useful fuel, often requiring high levels of energy or the use of corrosive chemicals.

To overcome this problem, the research team combined raw wood sawdust with a catalyst made of the metal complex niobium phosphate, with small particles of platinum dotted across the surface. The mixture was stewed at 190°C (374°F) and a pressure of 50 atmospheres for 20 hours, resulting in the lignin being broken down.

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According to the scientists, their work opens up the possibility of using catalysts to manufacture liquid fuel from biomass.

“The conversion of biomass into fuels typically requires separations and pre-treatments to the raw biomass, thus suffering high energy penalties,” explained Dr. Sihai Yang, lead author of the study. “This catalyst showed exceptionally high activity in splitting the carbon-oxygen bonds, the most challenging step in the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass. This new catalytic process can therefore directly convert raw biomass to liquid fuels without separations or chemical pre-treatments, leading to significant potential energy savings.”

The results were published in Nature Communications.