Formaldehyde stabilization facilitates lignin monomer production during biomass depolymerization

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Science  21 Oct 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6310, pp. 329-333
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf7810

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Formaldehyde protects and serves

The lignin found in plants is a desirable renewable feedstock for fuels and other useful compounds. Breaking down such a strong, energy-dense polymer, however, requires pretreatment of plant biomass under harsh conditions. These pretreatment steps often cause side reactions within the polymer itself, which lower the overall yields of lignin monomers. Shuai et al. used formaldehyde during pretreatment to block the reactive groups that lead to carbon-carbon linkages in lignin. This simple step stabilized lignin during pretreatment, resulting in dramatically improved yields.

Science, this issue p. 329


Practical, high-yield lignin depolymerization methods could greatly increase biorefinery productivity and profitability. However, development of these methods is limited by the presence of interunit carbon-carbon bonds within native lignin, and further by formation of such linkages during lignin extraction. We report that adding formaldehyde during biomass pretreatment produces a soluble lignin fraction that can be converted to guaiacyl and syringyl monomers at near theoretical yields during subsequent hydrogenolysis (47 mole % of Klason lignin for beech and 78 mole % for a high-syringyl transgenic poplar). These yields were three to seven times those obtained without formaldehyde, which prevented lignin condensation by forming 1,3-dioxane structures with lignin side-chain hydroxyl groups. By depolymerizing cellulose, hemicelluloses, and lignin separately, monomer yields were between 76 and 90 mole % for these three major biomass fractions.

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