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

from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centre de Recherches sur les Macromolcules Vgtales in France, Los Alamos researcher Paul Langan used neutrons to probe the crystalline structure of highly crystalline cellulose, much like an X-ray is used to probe the hidden structures of the body. Langan and his colleagues found that although cellulose generally has a well-ordered network of hydrogen bonds holding it together, the material also displays significant amounts of disorder, creating a different type of hydrogen bond network at certain surfaces. These differences make the molecule potentially vulnerable to an attack by cellulase enzymes.

Moreover, in this month's Biophysical Journal, Los Alamos researchers Tongye Shen and Gnana Gnanakaran describe a new lattice-based model of crystalline cellulose. The model predicts how hydrogen bonds in cellulose can shift to remain stable under a wide range of temperatures. This plasticity allows the material to swap different types of hydrogen bonds but also constrains the molecules so that they must form bonds in the weaker configuration described by Langan and his colleagues. Most important, Shen and Gnanakaran's model identifies hydrogen bonds that can be manipulated via temperature differences to potentially make the material more susceptible to attack by enzymes that can crack the fibers into sugars for biofuel production.

"We have been able to identify a chink in the armor of a very tough and worthy adversarythe cellulose fiber," said Gnanakaran, who leads the theoretical portion of a large, multidisciplinary biofuels project at Los Alamos.

"These results are some of the first to come from this team, and eventually could point us toward an economical and viable process for making biofuels from cellulosic biomass," adds Langan, director of the biofuels project.


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

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