Research Examines Obstacles to Making Biofuel from Perennial Plants

A University of Arkansas (UA) chemistry professor has received a $400,000 award from the National Science Foundation to investigate a roadblock in the harvesting of biomass from perennial plants for the purpose of creating a source of renewable energy.

“Biofuel derived from perennial plants, such as grass and common weeds, is most desirable because these plants grow on marginal land and can be harvested repeatedly,” Feng Wang, associate professor of physical chemistry in J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, said in a June 14 statement. “But first we have to solve the problem of breaking down cellulose fibrils before biomass can be considered an economically viable source of renewable energy.”

Cellulose fibrils are microfibers of inert carbohydrates within plants, according to UA. They give wood its durability, for example. UA said that, through a process known as pretreatment, chemists separate these fibrils into individual carbohydrate chains that can be digested by enzymes. This process takes a long time, but Wang and other chemists are studying ways to speed it up.

UA said that Wang will develop computer models of cellulose fibrils to help scientists understand how they interact with water, alternative solvents and enzymes. His and other models will also lead to the design of catalysts for the pretreatment and hydrolysis of biomass.

Wang has been a chemistry and biochemistry professor at UA since 2012. In 2013 he received a Faculty Early Career Development Program, better known as a CAREER award, from the National Science Foundation, one of the highest honors given by the foundation to junior faculty members.

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