New alternative to oil brings us closer to clean energy

We are one patent-pending step closer to a future less dependent on fossil fuel energy. A group of international researchers have found a way to break down lignin, a complex organic polymer that can be used as an alternative to petrochemicals. 

“We’ve been able to produce more sustainable precursors for things like plastics, fuels and things like detergents from plants, instead of from less sustainable petroleum,” said research team lead, Jeremy S. Luterbacher, Assistant Professor Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), in a News Institute Of Chemical Sciences And Engineering video.

Recognizing its “chemistry as relatively straightforward,” Luterbacker said, “The market is difficult for sustainable energy largely because of inconsistent political support and widely varying energy prices. Investors for such innovative platforms are hard to come by in an uncertain market, especially considering the competition of well-established fossil fuels.” 

Lignin accounts for the bulk of what gives wood and bark rigidity, but its molecular structure is the real prize, with an energy density 30% greater than traditional sugars used for biofuel production according to a PHYS.ORG article. Biofuels Digest also points to an emergent list of suppliers and producers willing to sell cellulosic sugar and/or lignin for research and use in a wide spectrum of commercial applications. 

Adding formaldehyde, a widely used and cheaply produced chemical, to break down non-edible plant sugars, EPFL researchers turned what Luterbacker called “black crud” into “something amazing” in terms of a potential fossil fuel substitute. Luterbacker also described lignin’s incredible chemical resemblance to petroleum. 


Their process resulted in high yields of building block materials used to make petrochemicals that were three to seven times higher than those obtained from lignin without formaldehyde. Patent development information can be found in Science.

“Once you inject carbon dioxide into the atmosphere after you’ve used it, you’re not contributing to global warming, so it’s much more environmentally friendly,” said Luterbacker. 

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