Cracking carbon-carbon bonds in lignin to make sustainable aviation fuels 

(Illustration: Emiel Hensen, TU/e)  

January 11, 2024 – A TU/e-led project using advanced catalytic methods to cleave carbon-carbon bonds in plant-based lignin is featured on the cover of the first-ever issue of Nature Chemical Engineering. 

There is a global consensus that humankind needs to move away from fuels produced from fossil feedstocks to curb the effects of climate change. While smaller vehicles turn to e-mobility, unfortunately, heavy-duty transport systems such as trucks, ships, and airplanes will rely on traditional liquid hydrocarbon fuels for the foreseeable future. As an alternative to fossil oils, these renewable fuels can be produced from plant-based lignin, but yields are limited by the current processing approaches, hampering the adoption of these alternative plant-based fuels. In a new study led by Emiel Hensen’s professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry at TU/e, a novel catalytic approach has been developed that can significantly improve yields from lignin by cracking hard-to-break carbon-carbon bonds. 

Lignin is one of the major components in plant biomass, and it’s this component that Hensen and others want to use to produce valuable fuels and chemicals. Currently, though there’s a catch.
Lignin is a polymer of so-called aromatic compounds (a planar ring of atoms stabilized by the interaction of bonds in the ring) that is difficult to disentangle. In terms of bonds, lignin is made up of easy-to-break and weak carbon-oxygen bonds and much stronger carbon-carbon bonds.
Catalytic methods break the weak carbon-oxygen bonds with ease, but leave the carbon-carbon bonds untouched, thus limiting the yield of useful products from lignin.
So, in a study just published in the new journal Nature Chemical Engineering, which is featured on the inaugural cover, Hensen along with several TU/e colleagues working in collaboration with partners in the Netherlands, China, and Switzerland have cracked the carbon-carbon cleavage challenge using a new catalytic technology.

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