Biomass is recognized as an ideal carbon neutral, abundant, and renewable resource substitute for fossil fuels. The rich proton content in most biomass-derived materials, such as ethanol, 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) and glycerol endows it to be an effective hydrogen carrier. The derivatives, such as 2,5-difurandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) from HMF, lactic acid from glycerol, hydrofuroins from furfural are valuable products to be used in biodegradable polymers and synthetic jet fuels. Therefore, combining biomass valorisation with Power-to-X (X = fuel, chemicals) processes would present a promising strategy for decarbonising the global energy and chemical sectors.

Our strategies

Glycerol is a waste by-product from the biodiesel industry. Yet it is also a platform molecule that can produce other community compounds, such as lactic acid, the building block of biodegradable polylactic acid. Within the “glycerolyser” concept, glycerol is selectively converted into lactic acid by the electrochemical process on the anode, simultaneously, water is reduced into H2 on the cathode. By designing the anode catalyst (i.e. Pt + Lewis acid tandem structure), high selectivity towards lactic acid (> 80%) can be achieved. The advantage of this process compared to conventional glucose anaerobic batch fermentation for lactic acid production is it offers much higher productivity, environmental advantages and fewer purification steps.

Furfural and 5-hydroxymethyl furfural (HMF) are platform chemicals that are obtained from the hydrolysis of waste biomass, which can be upgraded to replace current non-renewable fuels and polymers. Current industrial methods to valorise biomass use tons of organic solvents and operate at high temperatures and pressures. Our group aims at producing electrodes that can oxidise and reduce these platform chemicals under ambient aqueous conditions into high-valued compounds such as 2,5 furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) and hydrofuroin. We use organic synthesis to produce and characterise molecular catalysts which decorate our anodes and cathodes to be used to upgrade HMF and furfural in mild pH electrolytes. We also look at coupling our work with nitrogen reduction to integrate N-moieties into these platform chemicals to yield high added-value chemicals, notably of interest to the pharmaceutical industry.

Contacts: Zamaan Mukadam.