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Scientists turn wastewood into high-octane fuel and artificial vanilla flavorings

Mahdi Abu-Omar’s high-octane fuel and artificial vanilla flavoring share one thing in common: they both were developed from wastewood.

Leading a team of researchers at Purdue University, Abu-Omar, a chemist and chemical engineer, recently developed a new method of catalytic conversion to turn lignin, which makes up a plant’s cell walls and serves as support beams that hold the plant upright and carry its water, into products that can either fuel your car or flavor your cupcake.

Before this innovation, Abu-Omar said lignin’s only value was that this resulting biomass could be burned for heat as a byproduct of processing ethanol from cellulose.

“If you’re to think about making the next generation biofuels from biomass, you want to utilize as much as you can from the biomass,” he said. “It’s a technology that allows us to be more efficient and more sustainable while adding values.”

Abu-Omar’s work at Purdue’s Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels did just that, developing a more efficient process to generate an alternative fuel source. But that wasn’t all they did.

In the process of squeezing more use out of plant waste, Abu-Omar’s team stumbled across one more finding: naturally derived, synthetic vanilla flavoring and fragrances.

Normally, Abu-Omar said, these artificial vanilla flavorings and fragrances come from petroleum. That’s right. Petroleum.

“The majority of synthetic vanilla is produced from petroleum,” Abu-Omar said. “This would be from a natural source versus coming from a petroleum byproduct.”

So, why hasn’t anyone done this before?

According to Abu-Omar, the paper and pulp industries typically use acids to strip lignin from plant cell walls when making pulp for paper. Those chemicals interfere with researchers being able to selectively work with specific molecules that produce vanillin and fuel from wastewood.

“The key element is the selectivity,” he said. “Once you have this selectivity and you’re making molecules, you can make biofuels and other interesting products from the sugars in the plant.”

There’s also money in the vanilla flavorings. According to Abu-Omar, wastewood often burns for 40 cents per ton when it instead could be converted into something far more valuable, such as synthetic vanilla flavorings, which sell for about $15 per kilo, or thousands of dollars per ton.

The Purdue project belongs to a network of research groups nationwide under the Department of Energy’s Energy Frontier Research Centers, which started in 2009 and originally included more than 40 centers at universities, national laboratories and industry and non-profit research sites. The Purdue project received $3 million per year as an EFRC project.

The Department of Energy’s purpose in creating the centers is to “pick science problems that, if solved, could have real technological impact,” said Andrew Schwartz, senior technical advisor for Energy Frontier Research Centers.

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