Scientists at Queen's University, Belfast, have discovered a new eco-friendly method of dissolving wood using ionic liquids that may help its transformation into popular products such as bio fuels, textiles, clothes and paper.
Dr Hector Rodríguez and Professor Robin Rogers from the University's School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering worked along with The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, to come up with a more cost and energy efficient way of processing wood.
Their solution may see a new sustainable future for industry based on bio-renewable resources.
At present, wood is broken down mainly by the Kraft pulping process, which originates from the 19th century and uses a wasteful technology relying on polluting chemicals.
The key reason for tolerating this method is that it is very difficult to break down and separate the different elements of wood.
Until now, any alternatives to the process have presented similar problems.
The Queen's researchers found that chips of both softwood and hardwood dissolved completely in ionic liquid and only mild conditions of temperature and pressure were needed.
By controlled addition of water and a water-acetone mixture, the dissolved wood was partially separated into a cellulose-rich material and pure lignin.
This process is much more environmentally-friendly than the current method as it uses less heat and pressure and produces very low toxicity while remaining biodegradable.
According to Professor Robin Rogers, "This is a very important discovery because cellulose and lignin have a wide variety of uses. Cellulose can be used to make products such as paper, biofuels, cotton and linen, as well as many other commodity materials and chemicals."
"Lignin can be used to create performance additives in various applications, such as strengthening cars and airplanes with a fraction of the weight of conventional reinforcement materials. It is also a source of other chemicals which are mainly obtained from petroleum-based resources," he said.
"The discovery is a significant step towards the development of the biorefinery concept, where biomass is transformed to produce a wide variety of chemicals," said Dr Hector Rodríguez.
"Eventually, this may open a door to a truly sustainable chemical industry based on bio-renewable resources," he added.
The researchers are hoping to eventually achieve better dissolution under even softer conditions and are also trying to achieve complete separation of the different elements in one single step.