They've been dubbed "grassoline" second generation biofuels made from inedible plant material, including fast-growing weeds, agricultural waste, sawdust, etc. and numerous scientific studies have shown them to be prime candidates for replacing gasoline to meet our transportation needs. However, before we can begin to roll down the highways on sustainable, carbon-neutral grassoline, numerous barriers must be overcome, starting with finding ways to break lignocellulosic biomass down into fermentable sugars.
The use of ionic liquids - salts that are liquids rather than crystals at room temperature to dissolve lignocellulose and later help hydrolyze the resulting liquor into sugars, shows promise as a way of pre-treating biomass for a more efficient conversion into fuels. However, the best ionic liquids in terms of effectiveness are also prohibitively expensive for use on a mass scale. Furthermore, scientists know little beyond the fact that ionic liquids do work. Understanding how ionic liquids are able to dissolve lignocellulosic biomass should pave the way for finding new and better varieties for use in biofuels.
A new technique that is providing some much needed answers has been developed by researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Center led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). Based on the natural auto-fluorescence of plant cell walls, this technique enables researchers for the first time to dynamically track solubilization during an ionic liquid pretreatment of a biomass sample, and to accurately and quickly assess the liquid's performance without the need of labor-intensive and time-consuming chemical and immunological labeling.
"Working with switchgrass and using the ionic liquid known as EmimAc (1-n-ethyl-3-methylimidazolium acetate), which is currently the most effective in terms of pre-treating biomass, we observed a rapid swelling of the
|Contact: Lynn Yarris|
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory