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UMass Amherst chemical engineers say 'mini-cellulose' molecule unlocks biofuel chemistry
Date:2/16/2012

AMHERST, Mass. A team of chemical engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has discovered a small molecule that behaves the same as cellulose when it is converted to biofuel. Studying this 'mini-cellulose' molecule reveals for the first time the chemical reactions that take place in wood and prairie grasses during high-temperature conversion to biofuel. The new technical discovery was reported in the January 2012 issue of the journal Energy & Environmental Science and highlighted in Nature Chemistry.

The "mini-cellulose" molecule, called α-cyclodextrin, solves one of the major roadblocks confronting high-temperature biofuels processes such as pyrolysis or gasification. The complex chemical reactions that take place as wood is rapidly heated and breaks down to vapors are unknown. And current technology doesn't allow the use of computer models to track the chemical reactions taking place, because the molecules in wood are too large and the reactions far too complicated.

Paul Dauenhauer, assistant professor of chemical engineering and leader of the UMass Amherst research team, says the breakthrough achieved by studying the smaller surrogate molecule opens up the possibility of using computer simulations to study biomass. He says, "We calculated that it would take about 10,000 years to simulate the chemical reactions in real cellulose. The same biofuel reactions with 'mini-cellulose' can be done in a month!"

Already his team has used insight from studying the "mini-cellulose" to make significant progress in understanding wood chemistry, Dauenhauer says. Using the faster computer simulations, they can track the conversion of wood all the way to the chemical vapor products. These reactions include creating furans, molecules that are important for the production of biofuels.

The discovered reactions occurring within wood will serve as the basis for designing advanced biofuel reactors, Dauenhaue
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Contact: Paul Dauenhauer
dauenhauer@ecs.umass.edu
413-545-2819
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Source:Eurekalert

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