Biomass conversion catalyst breaks lignin into manageable molecules

Lignin component

Lignin component

Researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered that a nickel-based homogenous catalyst is capable of breaking down lignin into smaller molecules that preserve the aromatic rings of the lignin. The Chemistry World article indicates that the fact that the catalyst is homogenous sets the catalyst apart from other catalysts for breaking down the lignin and biomass. The discovery is significant because it may allow for the production of plastics from biomass by the breaking of ligin into its molecular sub-components. Plastics from biomass using these types of methods may be more efficient because the end product may more closely resemble the lignin found in the starting biomass than it does the components found in crude oil.

United States Patent 6,207,808 to Douglas Naae of Sugar Land, Texas et al. entitled “Catalytic method for the preparation of lignin phenol surfactants in organic solvents” teaches and older but related technology. Lignin is reacted with hydrogen sulfide in the presence of a molybdenum-nickel oxide catalysts on an alumina support at conditions above 200°C and 100 psig. Interestingly, the patent is assigned to Texaco and the claimed use of the resulting surfactants is for injection wells for oil production.