Identifying chink in armor of fibers spells new hope for biomass fuels

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Washington, April 23 (ANI): Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, US, have discovered a potential chink in the armor of fibers that make the cell walls of certain inedible plant materials so tough, a find that could lead to a cost-effective and energy-efficient strategy for turning biomass into alternative fuels.

The researchers identified potential weaknesses among sheets of cellulose molecules comprising lignocellulosic biomass, the inedible fibrous material derived from plant cell walls.

For the research, 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, 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 adversary - the 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," added Langan, director of the biofuels project. (ANI)

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