Michigan State University researchers have developed a chemical method that enables electricity and water to break the strong chemical bonds in biomass or plant matter. The “electrocatalytic” process could be applied to lignin, a carbon-rich biomass component that is usually discarded or simply burned as a byproduct of making paper. The new tool also has the potential to destroy environmental pollutants.

The press release offered some background. With energy costs rising, and the rapidly emerging effects of burning fossil fuels on the global climate, the need has never been greater for researchers to find paths to products and fuels that are truly renewable.

Ned Jackson,a professor of organic chemistry in the College of Natural Science at Michigan State University explained, “We use 20 million barrels of oil a day in the U.S.; that’s about a fifth of the world’s usage. All our liquid fuels and nearly all of our manufactured materials, from gasoline and gallon jugs to countertops and clothes, start with petroleum – crude oil.”

Developing the tools to move from fossil fuels to renewable sources of carbon for all these components of daily life is necessary. But according to the most optimistic projections, professor Jackson noted, “What we could harvest annually from biomass in the U.S. only has about two-thirds as much carbon in it as the crude oil that the nation uses.”

The research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Schematic illustration of electrocatalytic hydrogenolysis/hydrogenation of diphenyl ether in an H-cell. Image Credit: Michigan State University. Click image for the largest view.

A global goal is to tap into both the carbon and the energy stored in biomass to enable it to replace petroleum. But new, efficient methods are needed to break this complex, tough, low-energy material down into the building blocks for fuels and products. Specifically, tools are needed to disconnect the strong chemical bonds that bind it together, while retaining – and even enhancing – as much of the carbon and energy content as possible.

“One of the things that drives us is the idea that our main use of petroleum is fuel that is burned to produce energy, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” Jackson said. “The new science is a step toward extracting useful carbon compounds to displace some fraction of the fossil petroleum that we use today.”


The good professor has what sounds like to be a breakthrough that deserves replication and further development. The press release is as thin as any your humble writer has ever seen. It would be a fine thing if there was more info that would incite more interest because cracking out lignin in an economical way would be a huge breakthrough.

For now the research paper is not behind a paywall. So if this team’s work is of interest one best move on it.

One does need to know one’s organic chemistry when looking into this. One would surely could have used a watt hour number vs yield to help give gravitas to the work.

This is important work and the team deserves congratulations and some notoriety. The interested observers deserve more information.


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