ESF Researchers Receive Grant for Eco-Manufacturing of Lignin-Derived Products Using Solar Energy

Researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) – one of the nation's premier colleges focused exclusively on the study of the environment, developing renewable technologies, and building a sustainable future – received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further its research on carbon-neutral alternative sources for value-added chemicals currently sourced from petroleum and other fossil fuels.

Nearly half-a-million dollars will help fund the project, Photoelectrosynthetic Aminoxyl Catalyzed Alcohol Oxidation, which is being led by ESF's principal Investigator Dr. Gyu Leem, assistant professor of chemistry, and co-principal Investigator Dr. Chang Geun Yoo, assistant professor of chemical engineering in collaboration with two other partner institutions, University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, and Texas Christian University. As a leading institute, approximately $324,000 is designated to ESF's portion of the project.

"The NSF's investment in SUNY ESF'S research of alternative fuel sources is a powerful affirmation of its commitment to a sustainable future," said ESF President Joanie Mahoney. "This grant recognizes Drs. Gyu's and Chang's pivotal role in transforming our energy landscape and leading us toward a world more reliant on renewable, cleaner, and abundant energy sources."

"This proposal will create a transformative direction in the eco-manufacturing of lignin-derived valuable products using solar energy," said Leem. "We believe understanding over the chemoselective oxidation of waste lingin is key for the ultimate development of a renewable process for generating platform chemicals, while reducing fossil fuels."

Researchers are working on developing a cost-effective process to use lignin - a complex biopolymer found in plant cell walls ­– into value-added chemicals or fuels. As a main component of biomass lignin is an abundant and renewable resource in nature, but until now, the conversion process has been cost prohibitive and less effective.

To make this approach economically viable, researchers are working on developing more efficient and cost-effective sustainable methods for lignin conversion.

Dye-sensitized photoelectrochemical cells have emerged as a low-cost and environmentally friendly technology for converting solar energy into chemical fuels or electricity. These photoelectrochemical cells offer a means of using renewable solar energy to drive energy-intensive chemical conversions at ambient temperature and pressure. Leem and Yoo will study how a dye-sensitized photoanode can chemoselectively oxidize lignin with a suitable catalyst as a first step toward a solar or visible light-driven lignin depolymerization process.

Leem and Yoo are collaborating with colleagues in the fields of photocatalysis, electrochemistry, photophysics, bioprocessing, and materials science with the shared goal of understanding solar-driven catalysis for renewable biomass conversion. This project is supported by their research groups in macromolecular catalyst synthesis and characterization and photophysical studies (Leem), and biomass and lignin characterization and processing (Yoo). Yoo is focusing on the characterization and mechanistic studies of photocatalytic oxidation of lignin dimers and real lignin products.

With the NSF award, this grant can expand many differently catalyzed processes to selectively oxidize primary and secondary alcohols into carbonyl or carboxyl compounds in fine chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

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