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Plasticity, elasticity, and adhesion energy of plant cell walls: nanometrology of lignin loss using atomic force microscopy

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Scientific Reports
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The complex organic polymer, lignin, abundant in plants, prevents the efficient extraction of sugars from the cell walls that is required for large scale biofuel production. Because lignin removal is crucial in overcoming this challenge, the question of how the nanoscale properties of the plant cell ultrastructure correlate with delignification processes is important. Here, we report how distinct molecular domains can be identified and how physical quantities of adhesion energy, elasticity, and plasticity undergo changes, and whether such quantitative observations can be used to characterize delignification. By chemically processing biomass, and employing nanometrology, the various stages of lignin removal are shown to be distinguished through the observed morphochemical and nanomechanical variations. Such spatially resolved correlations between chemistry and nanomechanics during deconstruction not only provide a better understanding of the cell wall architecture but also is vital for devising optimum chemical treatments.