Issue Date: August 11, 2008
A streamlined chemical method that permits easier, direct conversion of purified cellulose into a biofuel has been devised by researchers at the University of California, Davis (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., DOI: 10.1002/anie200801594). The process transforms cellulose into 5-(chloromethyl)-furfural (CMF) and then into 5-(ethoxymethyl)-furfural (EMF), which is a promising alternative fuel. Ethanol, currently the most widely produced biofuel, is made via a fermentation process that is relatively slow and expensive and requires simple sugars from food crops as a feedstock. To use nonfood cellulose as a fuel source, a conversion method that can efficiently and cost-effectively break down cellulose on a large scale is necessary. Other researchers have converted biomass-derived sugars into furan-based compounds that are potentially useful as biofuels. But UC Davis’ Mark Mascal and Edward B. Nikitin advanced this process by eliminating a separate step to break down cellulose. The researchers use a solution of HCl and LiCl to digest pure cellulose, continuously extracting the reaction with dichloromethane to obtain CMF along with minor furan products in 85% yield. This intermediate mixture is treated with ethanol to produce EMF. Mascal and Nikitin say the process works equally well when starting with sucrose, glucose, or even tough lignocellulosic biomass such as cotton, straw, and wood.
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