Michigan State University
If biomass is to displace a useful fraction of fossil petroleum to meet fuel and chemical needs of human societies, we must quantitatively understand carbon and energy supplies. Efficient use of biomass carbon requires reduction chemistry to raise its energy content. All non-fossil sources (sun, wind, nuclear) supply energy as electric power. We focus on electrocatalytic methods to energy-upgrade carbon from renewable sources, chemically storing sunlight’s energy in the form of energy-rich fuels and useful chemicals while buffering variable wind/solar power output. As physical organic chemists, we pursue deconstruction of lignin and further upgrading to cyclohexanols based on mechanistic principles. The work has revealed novel C-O cleavage and hydrogenation paths, mechanistic insights into electrocatalysis and surface reactions, and hopeful approaches to liquid fuels and chemicals based on low-value, low energy lignin carbon.