Daily Collegian | Science

UMass Chemists Solve Cellulose Mystery

This article was originally published in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian on September 19, 2012.

Scientists have struggled for years to figure out how to create environmentally friendly biofuels from cellulose, the carbohydrate that composes the cell wall of plants. But just when the problem seemed unsolvable, chemists at the University of Massachusetts had a breakthrough.

Physical chemistry professor Scott Auerbach and his colleague Paul Dauenhauer, a chemical engineer, have discovered the hydrogen bonds that hold chains of cellulose together can actually break them apart with a little heat. The vapor produced from this process is a necessary ingredient for biofuels.

“For the first time our theoretical calculations reveal the dynamics of these bond-breaking events,” Auerbach said in a press release.

The researchers found that when temperatures exceed 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the hydrogen bonds that hold cellulose together at lower temperatures begin to break other chemical bonds.

“The amazing new thing is that hydrogen-bonding keeps cellulose intact in one situation and catalyzes its own destruction in another,” Auerbach said.

This knowledge, along with precise molecular models they have developed, will allow them to explore better ways of powering our cars and buildings with a cleaner energy source.

Auerbach and his team’s findings can be found in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

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