Alexis T. Bell, Amit A. Gokhale, Christopher R. Ho, Sankaranarayanapillai Shylesh
Growing concern with the environmental impact of CO2 emissions produced by combustion of fuels derived from fossil-based carbon resources has stimulated the search for renewable sources of carbon. Much of this focus has been on the development of methods for producing transportation fuels, the major source of CO2 emissions today, and to a lesser extent on the production of lubricants and chemicals. First-generation biofuels such as bioethanol, produced by the fermentation of sugar cane- or corn-based sugars, and biodiesel, produced by the transesterification reaction of triglycerides with alcohols to form a mixture of long-chain fatty esters, can be blended with traditional fuels in limited amounts and also arise in food versus fuel debates. Producing molecules that can be drop-in solutions for fossil-derived products used in the transportation sector allows for efficient use of the existing infrastructure and is therefore particularly interesting. In this context, the most viable source of renewable carbon is abundantly available lignocellulosic biomass, a complex mixture of lignin, hemicellulose, and cellulose. Conversion of the carbohydrate portion of biomass (hemicellulose and cellulose) to fuels requires considerable chemical restructuring of the component sugars in order to achieve the energy density and combustion properties required for transportation fuels—gasoline, diesel, and jet. A different set of constraints must be met for the conversion of biomass-sourced sugars to lubricants and chemicals. This Account describes strategies developed by us to utilize aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, furfurals, and carboxylic acids derived from C5 and C6 sugars, acetone–butanol–ethanol (ABE) fermentation mixtures, and various biomass-derived carboxylic acids and fatty acids to produce fuels, lubricants, and chemicals. Oxygen removal from these synthons is achieved by dehydration, decarboxylation, hydrogenolysis, and hydrodeoxygenation, whereas reactions such as aldol condensation, etherification, alkylation, and ketonization are used to build up the number of carbon atoms in the final product. We show that our strategies lead to high-octane components that can be blended into gasoline, C9–C22 compounds that possess energy densities and properties required for diesel and jet fuels, and lubricants that are equivalent or superior to current synthetic lubricants. Replacing a fraction of the crude-oil-derived products with such renewable sources can mitigate the negative impact of the transportation sector on overall anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change potential. While ethanol is a well-known fuel additive, there is significant interest in using ethanol as a platform molecule to manufacture a variety of valuable chemicals. We show that bioethanol can be converted with high selectivity to butanol or 1,3-butadiene, providing interesting alternatives to the current production from petroleum. Finally, we report that several of the strategies developed have the potential to reduce GHG emissions by 55–80% relative to those for petroleum-based processes.