Wall with plants

Plant matter could produce more green energy, researchers say

Image credit: Foto 101927549 © александр макаренко | Dreamstime.com

Scientists from Michigan State University have developed a new method to break down plant materials to obtain renewable energy.

Renewable energy originating from plant matter could lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, according to new research. 

A team of scientists at Michigan State University (MSU) have been able to leverage chemical tools to find a new path toward renewable energy sources and reduce energy costs by using plant matter. 

Through a novel "electrocatalytic" process, the researchers used electricity and water to break the strong chemical bonds in biomass or plant matter.

By applying this process to lignin, a carbon-rich biomass component that is usually discarded or simply burned as a byproduct of making paper, scientists may be able to produce electricity as well as destroy environmental pollutants.
The findings of their research have been published in the journal Nature Communications.

“We use 20 million barrels of oil a day in the US; that’s about a fifth of the world’s usage,” said Ned Jackson, a professor at MSU and author of the paper.

“All our liquid fuels and nearly all of our manufactured materials, from gasoline and gallon jugs to countertops and clothes, start with petroleum - crude oil.”
Developing the tools to move from fossil fuels to renewable sources of carbon for all these components of daily life is therefore necessary. However, according to the most optimistic projections, what the amount of energy that the US could harvest annually from biomass only has "about two-thirds as much carbon in it as the crude oil that the nation uses”, according to Jackson. 

Nonetheless, biomass is still considered a fundamental source of energy for a net-zero future. 

In order for biomass to be able to replace petroleum, new, efficient methods are needed to break the complex, tough, low-energy material down into the building blocks for fuels and products. Specifically, tools are needed to disconnect the strong chemical bonds that bind it together, while retaining - and even enhancing - as much of the carbon and energy content as possible, the research concludes.
“One of the things that drives us is the idea that our main use of petroleum is fuel that is burned to produce energy, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” Jackson said.

“The new science is a step toward extracting useful carbon compounds to displace some fraction of the fossil petroleum that we use today.”

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