PerspectiveCHEMICAL ENGINEERING

Taking on all of the biomass for conversion

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Science  20 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6484, pp. 1305-1306
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb1463

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Summary

The old saying that “you can make everything from biomass except money” sums up the huge challenges of converting lignocellulose into fuels and chemicals in a cost-competitive manner. Most efforts separate its more readily processed cellulose and hemicellulose components from lignin. However, upgrading the methoxylated phenylpropanoid lignin biopolymer (a process called valorization) has become the bottleneck (1). On page 1385 of this issue, Liao et al. (2) address this key issue in a more holistic way. Rather than separate the components, they converted woody biomass into phenol and propylene, two bulk chemicals widely used in the polymer industry, and coproduced valuable phenolic oligomers and a carbohydrate pulp amenable to bioethanol production. The total conversion efficiency is impressive, up to 78% by weight (wt %) based on the initial mass input. Moreover, both technoeconomic analysis and life-cycle assessment reveal that such an integrated process can be profitable and sustainable.

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