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Breaking the ties that bind: New hope for biomass fuels
Date:4/22/2009

LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico, April 22, 2009Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers have discovered a potential chink in the armor of fibers that make the cell walls of certain inedible plant materials so tough. The insight ultimately could lead to a cost-effective and energy-efficient strategy for turning biomass into alternative fuels.

In separate papers published today in Biophysical Journal and recently in an issue of Biomacromolecules, Los Alamos researchers identify potential weaknesses among sheets of cellulose molecules comprising lignocellulosic biomass, the inedible fibrous material derived from plant cell walls. The material is a potentially abundant source of sugar that can be used to brew batches of methanol or butanol, which show potential as biofuels.

Cellulose is biosynthesized in plant cells when molecules of glucosea simple sugarjoin into long chains through a process called polymerization. The plant then assembles these chains of cellulose into sheets. The sheets are held together by hydrogen bondsan electrostatic attraction of a positive portion of a molecule to a negative portion of the same or neighboring molecule. Finally, the sheets stack atop one another, sticking to themselves by other types of attractions that are weaker than hydrogen bonds. The plant then spins these sheets into high-tensile-strength fibers of material.

Not only are the fibers incredibly strong, but they are incredibly resistant to the action of enzymes called cellulases that can crack the fibers back into their simple-sugar components. The ability to economically and easily break cellulose into sugars is desirable because the sugars can be used to create fuel alternatives. However, due to the tenacity of cellulose fibers, the United States currently lacks an energy-efficient and cost-effective method for turning inedible biomass such as switch grass or corn husks into a sweet source of biofuels.

Working with researchers
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Contact: James Rickman
jamesr@lanl.gov
505-665-9203
DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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