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BER Research Highlights

Unplugging the Cellulose Bottleneck
Published: March 14, 2017
Posted: July 19, 2017

A research collaboration between WSU Tri-Cities, EMSL and PNNL substantially increased understanding of cellulosic biomass recalcitrance, which not only challenges traditional understanding but provides further insight into the molecular structure of cellulose that will advance bioproducts. [Image courtesy of EMSL]

Molecular-level understanding of cellulose structure reveals why it resists degradation and could lead to cost-effective biofuels.

The Science
A major bottleneck hindering cost-effective production of biofuels and many valuable chemicals is the difficulty of breaking down cellulose—an important structural component of plant cell walls. A recent study addressed this problem by characterizing molecular features that make cellulose resistant to degradation.

The Impact
The findings reveal for the first time structural differences between surface layers and the crystalline core of the two types of cellulose found in plant cell walls. These insights could help researchers develop efficient, cost-effective strategies for breaking down cellulose for renewable energy production and other industrial applications.

A molecular-level understanding of the resistance of cellulose to degradation is a key step toward overcoming the fundamental barrier to making biofuels cost-competitive. However, significant questions remain with respect to cellulose’s structure, particularly its surface layers and crystalline core. To address this knowledge gap, researchers from Washington State University; the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a DOE Office of Science user facility ; and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory developed a novel high-resolution technique called Total Internal Reflection Sum Frequency Generation Vibrational Spectroscopy (TIR-SFG-VS) and combined it with conventional non-TIR SFG-VS to characterize molecular structures of cellulose’s surface layers and crystalline bulk, respectively. The researchers used Sum Frequency Generation for Surface Vibrational Spectroscopy at EMSL. The findings revealed for the first time the structural differences between the surface layers and the crystalline core of cellulose. By revealing cellulose’s conformation and non-uniformity, the results challenge the traditional understanding of cellulose materials and showcase the strong value of powerful spectroscopic tools in advancing knowledge about the structure of cellulose.

BER PM Contact
Paul Bayer, SC-23.1, 301-903-5324

PI Contact
Bin Yang
Washington State University

This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science (Office of Biological and Environmental Research), including support of the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a DOE Office of Science User Facility; a DARPA Young Faculty Award; and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

L. Zhang, L. Fu, H.-F. Wang, and B. Yang, “Discovery of Cellulose Surface Layer Conformation by Nonlinear Vibrational Spectroscopy.” Scientific Reports 7:44319 (2017). DOI: 10.1038/srep44319 (Reference link)

Related Links
Unplugging the Cellulose Bottleneck EMSL science highlight
New way to characterize cellulose, advance bioproducts WSU News Post

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: DOE Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL)
  • Research Area: Plant Systems and Feedstocks, Plant-Microbe Interactions
  • Research Area: Sustainable Biofuels and Bioproducts
  • Research Area: Structural Biology, Biomolecular Characterization and Imaging

Division: SC-33.2 Biological Systems Science Division, BER


BER supports basic research and scientific user facilities to advance DOE missions in energy and environment. More about BER

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