Skip to main content

Deconstruction of biomass enabled by local demixing of cosolvents at cellulose and lignin surfaces

Publication Type
Journal Name
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Publication Date

A particularly promising approach to deconstructing and fractionating lignocellulosic biomass to produce green renewable fuels and high-value chemicals pretreats the biomass with organic solvents in aqueous solution. Here, neutron scattering and molecular-dynamics simulations reveal the temperature-dependent morphological changes in poplar wood biomass during tetrahydrofuran (THF):water pretreatment and provide a mechanism by which the solvent components drive efficient biomass breakdown. Whereas lignin dissociates over a wide temperature range (>25 °C) cellulose disruption occurs only above 150 °C. Neutron scattering with contrast variation provides direct evidence for the formation of THF-rich nanoclusters (Rg ∼ 0.5 nm) on the nonpolar cellulose surfaces and on hydrophobic lignin, and equivalent water-rich nanoclusters on polar cellulose surfaces. The disassembly of the amphiphilic biomass is thus enabled through the local demixing of highly functional cosolvents, THF and water, which preferentially solvate specific biomass surfaces so as to match the local solute polarity. A multiscale description of the efficiency of THF:water pretreatment is provided: matching polarity at the atomic scale prevents lignin aggregation and disrupts cellulose, leading to improvements in deconstruction at the macroscopic scale.