By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities
RICHLAND, Wash. – WSU Tri-Cities associate professor Xiao Zhang is targeting the use of lignin — a common material that makes the cell walls of plants rigid — to create affordable biofuels and bioproducts.
Interested in the project, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has granted Zhang, an associate professor in WSU’s Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, $500,000 to complete the research. The laboratory is part of the university’s Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering.
The project will be conducted in partnership with Xuejun Pan, a professor in the department of biological systems engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Lignin is one of the largest renewable carbon sources on Earth. It allows trees to stand, gives vegetables their firmness and makes up about 20-35 percent of the weight of wood. It also is one of the largest remnant products left over in the biofuels creation process.
Zhang and his team will investigate new conversion pathways to produce chemicals and biofuels without completely breaking down lignin into monomers — molecules that can be synthesized into polymers. In addition to its potential cost savings, the process could maximize carbon utilization in the biofuels creation process. It would also provide a profitable use for a waste product.
“We aim at converting lignin into a skeleton that has a similar carbon length in jet fuel range,” Zhang said. “The uniqueness is really targeting a more cost-effective process in taking advantage of the basic lignin structure of characteristics. Unlike many other processes, we don’t have to break down the lignin completely to its monomers.”