In my blog, ‘the sweet smell of success‘, I discussed the use of ionic liquids – salt in a liquid state as a result of poor ionic co-ordination – in perfumes and alluded to other fields of research where they are used. Today I’m delving a little further and shining a light on the use of ionic liquids in biofuels.
Researchers at North Carolina State University, US, (NCSU) are investigating the use of ionic liquids to strip lignin from plant cells. Their aim is to find a cost-effective method of processing biomass for biofuel production.
Lignin is a complex phenolic polymer that is found in plant cell walls. It plays an important structural role, providing the plant with strength and rigidity due to a cross-linked structure that is difficult to break down. After cellulose, it is the most abundant source of renewable carbon on earth.
The quest for efficiency and productivity in the chemical and process industry is a 24/7 occupation. Extracting every ounce of potential is the goal. But it is not easy and some corners of our profession have big challenges.
Extracting the full potential of biomass is one example. Trees, plants and agricultural waste can provide a valuable source of fuel in the form of ethanol from cellulose.
But the same biomass also consists of lignin – a by-product of ethanol production. Although nearly as abundant as cellulose, its uses are more limited and is often just burnt to power ethanol plants.
If a cellulosic ethanol industry is to grow and be commercially successful, new processes will be needed to convert all of the input biomass into fuel. To improve the economic feasibility, a portion of the lignin needs to be converted to higher-values chemicals or materials.
The challenge has promoted a multi-disciplinary team at Purdue University to take a new look at breaking down the molecules in biomass – using rocket technology!
Take a look at this video which offers a great explanation of their work, including rocket technology which heats the biomass in a few hundredths of a second.