April 30, 2009

Secret to cellulose's resilience revealed

Make a computer model of the hydrogen bonds within and between cellulose molecules and you're a step closer to cheap biofuel.

The model reveals one of the reasons cellulose is so difficult to break down: its hydrogen bonds rearrange themselves as the temperature changes. The shiftiness allows cellulose to remain stable across a wide range of temperatures.

The adaptable nature of cellulose's hydrogen bonds also means that they're not ever in the strongest configuration possible, however. This makes it possible to use enzymes and temperatures to affordably break down the molecules. The trick is finding the right combination.

The degree of difficulty of breaking cellulose down correlates to the cost of making biofuel from biomass; the simpler the process the cheaper the biofuel.

Research paper:
The Stability of Cellulose: A Statistical Perspective from a Coarse-Grained Model of Hydrogen-Bond Networks
Biophysical Journal, April 22, 2009

Researchers' homepages:
Tongye Shen
S. Gnanakaran

Related stories and briefs:
Chemical simplifies cellulosic biofuel production -- related research
Biomass-to-biofuel simplified -- related research

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