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Johnson Matthey Technol. Rev., 2018, 62, (1), 4

doi:10.1595/205651317x696261

The Role of Noble Metal Catalysts in Conversion of Biomass and Bio-derived Intermediates to Fuels and Chemicals

A review of promising approaches on plant based biomass as a renewable alternative feedstock

  • Banothile C. E. Makhubela* and James Darkwa#
  • Department of Chemistry, University of Johannesburg, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus, Auckland Park 2006, South Africa
  • Email: *bmakhubela@uj.ac.za, #jdarkwa@uj.ac.za
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In the face of growing oil demand the use of renewable feedstocks for the potential to supply transportation fuels, electricity, chemicals and materials is increasingly attractive. This review covers novel technologies and pathways to produce liquid fuels and chemical intermediates in an efficient and cost-effective way. Several commercial and pilot scale projects by companies including Anellotech, USA; Johnson Matthey, UK; GFBiochemicals, Italy; Quaker Oats, USA; Changchun Dacheng Group, China; Avantium, The Netherlands; BASF, Germany and Rennovia, USA are highlighted. The review focuses on the use of non-food competing biomass, namely cellulose and hemicellulose biomass, and the use of precious metals to effect the key reaction steps: hydrolysis, dehydration, hydrodeoxygenation, hydrogenation and oxidation. The value added products achieved include fine chemicals and functional materials. Among these are dimethylfuran, methylfuran, 5-(ethoxymethyl)furfural, γ-valerolactone, ethyl levulinate and valeric biofuels suitable as fuels and fuel additives as well as renewable alkanes in the C5–C15 range for gasoline and diesel fuel applications.

1. Introduction

Over the past century, the world has grown extremely reliant on finite fossil derived sources of carbon. Fossil derived sources such as crude oil, natural gas and coal supply more than three quarters of the world’s energy (Figure 1) and 90% of chemicals and materials (1, 2). The consumption of energy and chemicals is increasing at ~7% per annum and this has been mostly driven by the growth experienced by the emerging economies. More specifically, global oil demand is expected to grow until 2040, and this is largely as a result of lack of alternatives to crude oil for the production of transportation fuels and chemicals (13).

Fig. 1.

Total primary world energy supply in 2014. aOther includes geothermal, wind, solar, heat and tidal. (Based on IEA data from the Key World Energy Statistics © OECD/IEA 2016, www.iea.org/statistics. Licence: www.iea.org/t&c)

Total primary world energy supply in 2014. aOther includes geothermal, wind, solar, heat and tidal. (Based on IEA data from the Key World Energy Statistics © OECD/IEA 2016, www.iea.org/statistics. Licence: www.iea.org/t&c)

This growth in demand, combined with diminishing fossil derived fuel reserves, environmental degradation (arising from emission of harmful greenhouse gases associated with processing of fossil derived feedstocks), unreliable supply and price fluctuations have been the main motivations for the exploration of renewable alternatives to fossil derived sources of carbon for the production of energy and chemicals.

The global energy consumption renewables share (including biofuels and waste, geothermal, hydro, solar, wind and tidal) was 15.5% in 2014 and is expected to experience the fastest growth (led by solar and wind) between now and 2040 (3). It is important to point out that among the renewable energy sources, biomass has the potential to supply renewable transportation fuels, electricity, organic chemicals and materials demand. For renewable liquid fuels and chemicals to make a meaningful contribution to this projected rapid growth, substantial investment is needed into the development of technologies and novel pathways to produce renewable liquid fuels and platform chemicals in an efficient and cost-effective way.

Plant biomass is available on a recurring basis and has great potential as a renewable alternative feedstock for the production of fuels and chemicals to effectively reduce reliance on fossil derived resources. Plant biomass is inexpensive and is widely available throughout many geographical locations of the world, making it more accessible than fossil deposits (46). One primary source of chemicals is lignocellulose which is abundant in plants.

2. Structure of Lignocellulose

The primary constituents of plant biomass are lignin, carbohydrate polymers ((hemi)cellulose), oils, proteins and other chemicals such as dyes and vitamins. Lignocellulose is highly functionalised and is the main fraction (~90%) of plant biomass. It is composed of the non-edible biopolymers: cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin (Figure 2) (5, 6). In the present article, we review the use of carbohydrates (sugars and starchy biomass) and carbohydrate polymers (cellulose and hemicellulose biomass) in biorefinery. Recent reviews on the valorisation of lignin are available (79).

Fig. 2.

The main components of lignocellulose

The main components of lignocellulose

The main sources of cellulosic feedstock include agricultural, forestry, industrial and municipal wastes and residues (10). Unlike carbohydrates (sugar and starchy biomass) feedstock, cellulosic feedstock is non-edible and does not compete for arable land and therefore avoids conflict with food supply (11).

3. Conversion of Biomass and Biomass-derived Intermediates

3.1 Biomass Conversion versus Crude Oil Conversion: Diverging Approaches

Crude oil feedstock has low functionality which makes it directly suitable for use as a fuel after prior processing (for example cracking and isomerisation). Functional groups, such as C=O and OH, are added to crude oil derived feedstock to produce bulk and specialty chemicals. Here, special care is taken to ensure selective addition of the functional group without over functionalisation of the substrates (Figure 3). Contrastingly, biomass derived feedstocks, such as cellulose and hemicellulose, contain far too much functionality to use directly as fuels or bulk chemicals, and therefore require selective defunctionalisation strategies (5, 12, 13).

Fig. 3.

Conversion of biomass derived and fossil derived feedstocks to chemicals and fuels: contrasting approaches (From (13) published by The Royal Society of Chemistry)

Conversion of biomass derived and fossil derived feedstocks to chemicals and fuels: contrasting approaches (From (13) published by The Royal Society of Chemistry)

3.2 Biomass Conversion Technologies

The three common conversion technologies for carbohydrates and cellulose are shown in Figure 4 (2, 14–16). Although production of first generation biofuels (bio-ethanol and bio-butanol) is well established, this process relies on starch and sugar feeds which compete with the food chain (16). Hydrolysis of cellulosic feedstock to fermentable sugars has been achieved and a number of commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plants have been and are being developed in several countries (for example the USA, Italy, Brazil and Canada) as alternative routes to bio-alcohols as fuels in order to avoid food sources as feedstock (1720). Slow reaction rate, high cost and sensitivity of enzymes and energy intensive subsequent distillation and drying steps remain challenges to achieving cost-effectiveness in these processes. A cost-effective process that transforms biomass (such as wood, sugarcane bagasse or corn stover) to aromatic compounds has been developed by Anellotech, USA. This process uses zeolite-based catalysts, co-developed with Johnson Matthey, to produce gases which are then converted to benzene, xylene and toluene (bio-BTX) (21). Thermochemical processes such as gasification, pyrolysis, torrefaction and liquefaction require intense heating at elevated temperatures, therefore raising energy efficiency concerns. In addition, the selectivity in bio-oils produced from pyrolysis is extremely poor, therefore inevitably requiring expensive additional upgrading and separation steps (2223). This has led to a number of investigations into novel pathways to reduce costs (24, 25).

Fig. 4.

Current strategies for production of biofuels, biochemicals and biomaterials from biomass derived carbohydrates. aBTX = benzene, toluene, xylenes (2, 14–16)

Current strategies for production of biofuels, biochemicals and biomaterials from biomass derived carbohydrates. aBTX = benzene, toluene, xylenes (2, 14–16)

4. Recent Advances in Catalytic Approaches for Cellulose Conversion

In this review, we discuss recent advances in catalytic conversion of cellulosic biomass and cellulose derived intermediates to fuels, fuel additives and chemicals. We focus specifically on highlighting the roles and contributions of noble metal catalyst systems in the key reaction steps: hydrolysis, dehydration, hydrodeoxygenation (HDO), hydrogenation and oxidation leading to value added products from cellulosic biomass. The active catalysts’ performance and function, mechanistic pathways of reactions, opportunities for designing better catalytic systems, current industrial processes and barriers to upscaling to demonstration or commercial scale processing are also discussed. We write this review cognisant of the fact that many reviews have been published on the conversion of cellulosic and cellulose derived intermediates using solid and soluble mineral, organic and Lewis acids in aqueous, aqueous-organic biphasic media and ionic liquids (IL) (26, 27). There has also been a large body of work published on noble metal catalysts or noble metal co-catalyst systems promoting key biorefinery reaction steps and processes, thus demonstrating that these metal catalysts are crucial to the advancement of renewable liquid fuels, chemicals and materials. Yet few reports exist that critically assess and summarise the contribution of noble metal catalytic systems. Noble metals included in this review are: platinum, palladium, ruthenium, rhodium, iridium, osmium, silver and gold. We have also taken the latitude to include copper and rhenium in a few examples. These metals are known to be resistant to oxidation and corrosion and have long been utilised, in catalytic amounts, in chemical transformations.

5. Hydrolysis of Cellulose and Hemicellulose

Hydrolysis of cellulosic biomass (cellulose and/or hemicellulose) involves cleavage of β-1,4-glycosidic bonds of the biopolymer and is the first step in unlocking the potential of cellulosic feedstock (Figure 4). As mentioned previously, hydrolysis by enzymes is established (28). Several kinds of mineral acids, such as hydrochloric acid (HCl), sulfuric acid (H2SO4), hydrofluoric acid (HF), nitric acid (HNO3), phosphoric acid (H3PO4), boric acid (H3BO3) and organic acids (for example formic acid, oxalic acid, boronic acid, fumaric and acetic acid) have been employed in hydrolysis of cellulose to sugars (4, 14, 29). The first report on cellulose hydrolysis was with H2SO4 (0.5 wt%) in 1923. This catalyst promoted the hydrolysis of cellulose in wood waste and gave 50% yield of sugars (glucose and oligosaccharides) at 170°C in aqueous media (3032). H2SO4 has been found to show better catalytic activity than most mineral acids due to its higher acidity (pK a<1) (33). The insolubility of cellulose in aqueous media has been a challenge and this has led to the exploration of alternative solvents such as biphasic and ILs (3438), which turn out to dissolve cellulosic biomass better and enhance the yields of sugars. The use of microwave irradiation has accelerated reaction rates and lowered reaction temperatures (70–100°C) all the while also affording better yields of sugars (3941). However, problems associated with the use of mineral acids, which include reactor corrosion, separation of product-catalyst solution, recyclability and the use of large amounts of acid that result in waste effluent, have rendered mineral acid catalytic systems unappealing for industrial scale reactions.

Various other acid catalysts have been developed for hydrolysis of cellulosic biomass (cellulose and hemicellulose). These include solid acid catalysts, which have advantages over homogenous acid catalysts, such as ease of separation of the product-catalyst mixture, less waste and thus lower impact on the environment. Solid acid catalysts, generally in the form of metal oxides, carbon-supported SO3H groups, sulfonated resins, heteropoly acids (HPAs) and zeolites have been investigated. The use of Lewis acids and acidic IL are also known (4145). While SO3H group bearing carbonaceous catalysts give good performance, leaching of the SO3H groups from the support is a problem. Several metal chlorides (for example chromium(II) chloride (CrCl2), copper(II) chloride (CuCl2), dysprosium(III) chloride (DyCl3), ytterbium(III) chloride (YbCl3), indium(III) chloride (InCl3), gallium trichloride (GaCl3), lanthanum(III) chloride (LaCl3), aluminum chloride (AlCl3), hafnium(IV) chloride (HfCl4), tin(IV) chloride (SnCl4), germanium(IV) chloride (GeCl4), chromium(III) chloride (CrCl3), zirconium(IV) chloride (ZrCl4), titanium(IV) chloride (TiCl4) and niobium(V) chloride (NbCl5)) have been employed as soluble Lewis acids for cellulosic biomass hydrolysis. In most cases the Lewis acid catalyst plays a dual role of hydrolysis followed by dehydration to 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) (46).

The use of acidic IL is a unique strategy which can tackle both cellulose solubility issues and bring about efficient hydrolysis. In this catalyst system, the IL acts as the solvent and acid catalyst. In the presence of minimal amounts of water to aid hydrolysis, several IL have been reported to efficiently dissolve and depolymerise cellulose (4749). While reports on the hydrolysis of cellulose to glucose by Lewis acid catalysts abound in the literature, reports on the use of noble metal catalyst systems solely for hydrolysis are rare.

An example of a noble metal catalyst for the hydrolysis of cellulose is supported Ru catalysts. The effect of the support has been investigated by screening Ru supported on activated carbon, C60, mesoporous carbon and carbon black, with mesoporous carbon giving the best results. The Ru catalyst on mesoporous carbon support gave a combined glucose and oligosaccharide yield of 41%. Interestingly, the mesoporous carbon alone catalysed the conversion of cellulose to oligosaccharides, while the Ru on the mesoporous carbon converted oligosaccharides to glucose. The active species in the conversion of oligosaccharides to glucose was identified as RuO2•H2O (49, 50). This indicates the effect of the support on the hydrolysis of cellulose.

Recently, methyltrioxorhenium (MTO) was used as a catalyst for cellulose hydrolysis, at 150°C under microwave irradiation in 1-allyl-3-methylimidazolium chloride, to give a glucose yield of ≈25%. The authors proposed that the mechanism of the hydrolysis involves nucleophilic attack at the oxygen on the β-1,4-glycosidic bonds by the electron deficient rhenium centre, eventually leading to cleavage of the β-1,4-glycosidic bond (Scheme I) (51).

Scheme I.

Proposed mechanism of cellulose hydrolysis by MTO (Reprinted from (51). Copyright (2016), with permission from Elsevier)

Proposed mechanism of cellulose hydrolysis by MTO (Reprinted from (51). Copyright (2016), with permission from Elsevier)

The reaction was carried out in the IL 1-allyl-3-methylimidazolium chloride, [AMIM]Cl (52). A tetramethylammonium perrhenate [(CH3)4N]+ReO4 in [AMIM]Cl system has also been reported for cellulose hydrolysis. This catalyst system produced a mixture of glucose, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides. Notably, the alkyl chain length of the quaternary ammonium perrhenate impacted negatively on the glucose yield; thus as the chain length increased the glucose yield decreased. It was suggested that the mechanism of this reaction involves the perrhenate (ReO4) forming hydrogen bonding with the hydroxyl groups in cellulose; thus weakening the β-1,4-glycosidic bonds, which in turn enables water molecules to access the β-1,4-glycosidic bond more easily, leading to hydrolysis (52).

Su et al. have investigated CuCl2 coupled with either chromium(III) chloride (CrCl3), CrCl2, palladium(II) chloride (PdCl2) or iron(III) chloride (FeCl3) in the hydrolysis of cellulose. They found that paired metal chlorides were particularly active and showed better reaction rates for β-1,4-glycosidic bond cleavage in comparison to mineral acid catalysed hydrolysis. Paired catalytic systems exhibited improved activity compared to monometallic systems. More specifically, the CuCl2/PdCl2 pair gave the best yield (73%) of monosaccharides, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides in a reaction where the yield of glucose was 42%. Other products from the reaction were levulinic acid (LA), formic acid, sorbitol and HMF. It must be noted that neither CuCl2 nor PdCl2 on their own were active in hydrolysing cellulose, thus pointing to a vital synergistic effect between the CuCl2/PdCl2 system (53). In all the reports of noble metal-catalysed hydrolysis of cellulose discussed, no isolation and subsequent characterisation of the products was reported.

Once sugars are formed they can be further transformed into other chemicals which are feedstocks for fuels and chemicals. Scheme II shows how sugars formed from hydrolysis of cellulose can be transformed to these products.

Scheme II.

Reaction pathways to chemicals starting with cellulosic biomass

Reaction pathways to chemicals starting with cellulosic biomass

6. Conversion of Polysaccharides and Monosaccharides to 5-Hydroxymethylfurfural and Furfural

6.1 Polysaccharides and Monosaccharides to 5-Hydroxymethylfurfural

The dehydration of hexoses affords HMF, some furfural, LA, formic acid and humins. On the other hand, dehydration of pentoses produces furfural (Scheme II) (2, 4).

HMF and furfural are important platform chemicals that can be upgraded to valuable commodity chemicals, fuels and fuel additives. HMF is formed as an intermediate during dry heating and roasting of foods containing high levels of carbohydrates (54). It has been found in foods and beverages such as dried fruits, baked foods, coffee, honey, citrus juice, grape juice, prune juice, wine and brandy amongst others. Daily HMF intake is estimated at 30 to 150 mg per person and is toxic to humans if ingested at high concentrations (5557). HMF can be accessed by three dehydration steps of hexose sugars. The mechanistic pathway for acid catalysed dehydration of hexoses by expulsion of three water molecules is said to proceed via acyclic intermediates or cyclic intermediates (5862). The cyclic mechanism (Scheme III) begins from the cyclic ketofuranose which undergoes dehydration at C2 to form a carbenium cation, followed by consecutive β-dehydrations in the ring to afford HMF (61).

Scheme III.

Cyclic pathway for the dehydration of fructose to HMF (Reprinted from (61). Copyright (1990), with permission from Elsevier)

Cyclic pathway for the dehydration of fructose to HMF (Reprinted from (61). Copyright (1990), with permission from Elsevier)

The acyclic pathway (Scheme IV) proceeds via formation of 1,2-enediol, which is the rate determining step. This is followed by two β-dehydrations and finally ring closure to yield HMF (61).

Scheme IV.

Acyclic pathway for the dehydration of hexoses to HMF (Reprinted from (61). Copyright (1990), with permission from Elsevier)

Acyclic pathway for the dehydration of hexoses to HMF (Reprinted from (61). Copyright (1990), with permission from Elsevier)

In both pathways, the selective conversion of hexoses to HMF is influenced by the isomerisation of glucose to fructose. Glucose isomerisation is catalysed by Lewis acids and Brønsted acids (63). Brønsted acids tend to degenerate monosaccharides to various byproducts (6472) and afford low (<10%) yields of fructose. The use of organic bases such as piperazine, triethylamine, pyrrolidine, ethylenediamine, piperidine and morpholine has been reported. Fructose yields of up to 32% and 63% selectivity were achieved (66). These are the first organic base catalysed glucose to fructose isomerisation systems that gave yields and selectivities for fructose that are comparable to widely used Lewis acids (6872).

The conversion of hexoses and cellulosic biomass to HMF has been dominated by Lewis acid and mineral acid catalysts and has recently been reviewed (70). Some noble metal-containing catalytic systems have demonstrated good activity for this transformation (Table I) (7179).

Table I

Selected Noble Metal Catalysed Conversion of Monosaccharide, Polysaccharide and Lignocellulosic Biomass to HMFa (7177)

CarbohydrateCatalyst (catalyst loading)Temp., °CTime, hHMF Yield, %Ref.
Fructose MCl2 or M’Cl3 (6 mol%) M = Cr, Fe, Cu, Pd, Pt M′ = Rh, Ru, Mo 80 3 63–83 (71)
Fructose Ag3PW12O40 (3.3 wt%) 120 1 78 (73)
Glucose Ag3PW12O40 (3.3 wt%) 130 4 76 (73)
Cellulose CrCl2/CuCl2 (6 mol%) 120 8 59 (72)
Cellulose CuCl2 (20 mol%) 160 3.5 70 (75)
Cellulose CrCl2/RhCl3 (10 mol%) 120 2 60 (74)
reedb CrCl2/RhCl3 (10 mol%) 120 2 41 (74)
Fructose CuCl2 (18 mol%) 80 0.10 80 (76)
Fructose IrCl3 (7 mol%) 120 0.5 89 (77)
Fructose AuCl3.HCl (7 mol%) 120 3 44 (77)

a These yields are HPLC yields and were not isolated yields

b 26% furfural was also obtained

In 2007, Zhang and coworkers reported that fructose dehydration proceeded in the presence of catalytic amounts of MCl2 and M′Cl3 (where M = Cr, Fe, Cu, Pd, Pt and M′ = Rh, Rh, Ru, Mo). The catalytic systems were selective to HMF and negligible amounts (0.08%) of LA were produced. Notably, only CrCl2 gave high yields (70%) of HMF from glucose, whereas other Lewis acid catalysts afforded yields less than 10% (71). The role of Cr2+ is to convert the α-glucose to β-glucose and isomerise the β-glucose to fructose, which improves the yield of HMF. A mixture of CrCl2 and CuCl2 in 1-ethyl-3-methylimidazolium chloride ([EMIM]Cl) was used to transform cellulose into HMF (in 59% yield) in a single step. This catalytic system achieved this by prior hydrolysis of cellulose, followed by dehydration of glucose units into HMF. The authors suggest that CrCl2 activates CuCl2 to hydrolyse cellulose into glucose. Separate experiments with a CuCl2 catalyst only and with a paired CuCl2/CrCl2 catalyst (where the relative proportion of CuCl2 in the pair was higher than CrCl2), show that the paired metal chlorides yield more than three times the amount of product (i.e. glucose from cellulose) than the CuCl2 catalyst on its own. On the other hand, the CuCl2/CrCl2 pair with a relatively higher proportion of CrCl2 resulted in a high HMF yield, consistent with CrCl2 being a highly selective catalyst for the conversion of glucose to HMF. The catalytic system could be reused up to three times with consistent activity and selectivity (71).

In another report a solid Ag-containing HPA (Ag3PW12O40 HPA) was used as a solid catalyst to dehydrate fructose and glucose to HMF. HMF yields of 78% and 76% were obtained from fructose and glucose respectively. The Ag3PW12O40 cluster exhibited higher catalytic activity and selectivity as compared to when Brønsted acids (HCl and phosphotungstic acid (H3PW12O40)) and Lewis acid (silver nitrate (AgNO3)) were used separately in glucose dehydration to HMF. Therefore, the higher catalytic activity of Ag3PW12O40 can be attributed to the synergistic effect of Lewis acid and Brønsted acid sites in the Ag3PW12O40 cluster. Infrared (IR) experiments revealed that the substrate accumulated on the Ag3PW12O40 catalysts and could be the reason for the high activity displayed by this catalyst. Fourier transform (FT)-IR spectra of Ag3PW12O40 and its adsorbed fructose and glucose confirmed the absorption of substrate on part of the catalyst. Notably, the Ag3PW12O40 cluster as a catalyst could be recycled and reused up to six times (73).

In a further report, CrCl2 and RuCl3 in a 4:1 molar ratio catalysed the conversion of cellulose to HMF in [EMIM]Cl IL in a 60% yield. Gram scale production of HMF was achieved with this CrCl2/RuCl3 system. Furthermore, lignocellulosic biomass from reed was also converted to HMF (41% yield) and furfural (26%) using the same catalytic system and conditions (74). CuCl2 in 1-ethyl-3-methylimidazolium acetate ([EMIM [Ac]) has been used to produce HMF in ≈70% yield (75).

Good catalytic performance has been recorded for the dehydration of fructose to HMF with iridium(III) chloride (IrCl3) and AuCl3•HCl catalysts in HCl and 1-butyl-3-methylimidazolium chloride ([BMIM Cl). A HMF yield of 89% was obtained with IrCl3 catalyst in 30 min at 120°C while AuCl3•HCl gave 44% HMF yield under the same conditions (77).

6.2 Polysaccharides and Monosaccharides to Furfural

The synthesis of furfural has been achieved by using Brønsted and Lewis acid catalysts (8082). In a report by Zhang et al. CrCl3, CrCl3/lithium chloride (LiCl), FeCl3•6H2O, CuCl2•H2O, copper(I) chloride (CuCl), LiCl and AlCl3 were screened for catalytic activity and selectivity in xylose and xylan conversion to furfural, under microwave irradiation. AlCl3 gave the best performance for the production of furfural from xylose (82.2%) and xylan (84.8%) (80).

Furfuryl alcohol (FA) has also been obtained directly from xylose using a combination of Pt/SiO2 and ZrO2-SO4 catalysts. The SiO2 was reported to promote xylose to xylulose isomerisation (with xylose conversion of 65%), while the ZrO2-SO4 catalysed the dehydration of xylulose to furfural. Finally, furfural was selectively transformed to FA by Pt/SiO2 (81).

6.3 5-Hydroxymethylfurfural and Furfural as Sources of Biofuels

Sections 6.1 and 6.2 provide avenues to HMF and furfural, versatile renewable platform chemicals that can provide access to a variety of biofuels and chemicals (Schemes V and VI). Since the 1920s, the Quaker Oats Process has been producing furfural and FA from agricultural residues (83). AVA Biochem, Switzerland, produces 300 tonnes of 90% purity aqueous HMF and 20 tonnes of highly pure crystalline HMF per annum, (84) and there are examples of patented pilot scale processes that have produced HMF using organic catalysts, mineral acid catalysts and without a catalyst (8588). Although Lewis and Brønsted acid catalysts have dominated efforts to produce these platform chemicals, noble metal containing catalytic systems (including monometallic and bimetallic species) have shown remarkable efficacy in converting HMF and furfural to the chemicals illustrated in Schemes V (89) and VI (90). In Section 7 we will discuss some of the noble metal promoted catalytic transformations illustrated in Schemes V and VI.

Scheme V.

Various derivatives of 5-HMF (Reprinted with permission from (89). Copyright (2014) American Chemical Society)

Various derivatives of 5-HMF (Reprinted with permission from (89). Copyright (2014) American Chemical Society)

Scheme VI.

Various derivatives of furfural (Reprinted (adapted) with permission from (90). Copyright (2016) American Chemical Society)

Various derivatives of furfural (Reprinted (adapted) with permission from (90). Copyright (2016) American Chemical Society)

7. Conversion of Furfural and 5-Hydroxymethylfurfural to Value Added Chemicals and Fuels

As shown in Schemes V and VI, HMF and furfural are precursors for the synthesis of a variety of valuable chemicals and fuel additives (8990). These can be accessed via specific reaction pathways including hydrogenation, rehydration, etherification, esterification, aldol condensation, hydrogenolysis and HDO (8992). This review highlights recent literature reports of dimethylfuran (DMF), 2-methylfuran (2-MF), 5-(ethoxymethyl)furfural (EMF), 2,5-dimethyl-tetrahydrofuran (DMTHF), 2-methyl tetrahydrofuran (MTHF), FA, cyclopentanone (CPO) and pentanediols produced by noble metal containing catalytic systems (88124).

7.1 Polysaccharides and Monosaccharides to 2,5-Dimethylfuran, 2-Methylfuran, 2,5-Dimethyltetrahydrofuran, 2-Methyltetrahydrofuran and 5-Ethoxymethylfurfural

In comparison to the leading biofuel, bioethanol, DMF has a higher energy density (30 MJ l–1), a higher octane number of 119 and a lower volatility (boiling point = 92–94°C) than bioethanol (Table II). Furthermore, it is immiscible with water therefore, in this regard, is similar to gasoline. These properties make DMF a better biomass derived liquid fuel. Policy limitations and/or cost-effective production of DMF at an industrial scale are likely reasons why DMF has not yet been taken up as a fuel additive of choice, given its many technical advantages over bioethanol. DMF can be obtained from the HDO of HMF in the presence of a catalyst. Metal catalysts have been widely used to promote this reaction (88). For example, Dumesic et al. used a CuRu/C catalyst system that produced 71% DMF in 10 h when 1-butanol was used as the solvent of the reaction at 220°C and 6.8 bar H2 (91). This catalyst system could also be utilised to promote the conversion of HMF to DMF, where the HMF was initially prepared by mineral acid catalysed dehydration of corn stover (93).

Table II

Comparison of Dimethylfuran and 2-Methylfuran to Ethanol and Gasoline (92)a

PropertyDMFMFEthanolGasoline
Molecular formula C6H8O C5H6O C2H6O C6–C9
Molecular weight, g mol–1 96.13 82.04 46.07 100–0105
Boiling point, °C 92–94 63–66 78 95–99
Energy density, MJ l–1 30 28.5 21 31
Water solubility immiscible immiscible miscible immiscible
Research octane number (RON) 119 103 110 97
Density @ 20°C, kg m–3 890 913 791 745
Flash point, °C –1 –11 14 0.71–0.77

a Adapted with permission from (92). (Copyright (2015) American Chemical Society)

An even better catalyst system was reported by Wang et al. with a selective bimetallic catalyst (PtCo nanoparticles supported on hollow carbon nanospheres, PtCo@HCS) for the conversion of HMF to DMF at 180oC with a 98% yield in 1-butanol. The PtCo@HCS could be recycled and reused up to three times, although by the third cycle, a drop in DMF yield (from 98 to 72%) occurred (94). The role of the catalyst support in this reaction appears to be critical. For example, when Pt nanoparticles supported on activated carbon (Pt/AC) and graphitic carbon (Pt/GC) were employed in this reaction, only 9% and 56% DMF yields respectively were achieved. However, PtCo nanoparticles on activated carbon (PtCo/AC) and graphitic carbon (PtCo/GC) gave conversions of 100% HMF and 98% DMF, effectively proving that the two metals work cooperatively to transform HMF into DMF. Selective HDO of HMF over Ru/Co3O4 and PdAu/C has also been reported. These reactions were conducted in tetrahydrofuran (THF) using H2 at 130°C for 24 h and at 60°C for 6 h respectively; giving excellent DMF yields of 100% and 93.4% respectively (95, 96). It is interesting to note that Ru and Pd alone without either Co or Au are less effective in catalysing HMF to DMF. X-Ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) spectra of PdAu/C catalyst reveal that Pd atoms in the PdAu/C may have electronic poor states (after charge transfer from Pd to Au atoms occurs) which strongly contributed to the enhancement of HDO activity thus improving DMF yield.

Notably, Ru/C and Pd/C with and without ZnCl2 in converting HMF to DMF were reported by Zu et al. (96); Ru/C/ZnCl2 produced 41% DMF and 52% 2,5-dihydroxymethyl furan (DHMF) and Ru/C alone gave a minimal amount of DMF from HMF. The higher activity displayed by the bimetallic catalyst (Ru/C/ZnCl2) as compared to Ru/C suggests enhanced HDO in the presence of Zn2+, provided by the synergy between the two metals. It also explains why Pd/C/ZnCl2) gave better yield than Ru/C/ZnCl2) in this study (97, 98). In the presence of a Brønsted acid Amberlyst®-15, instead of ZnCl2, a mixture of products was obtained from HMF, namely DMTHF (13%), DMF (6%), tetrahydrofurfuryl alcohol (THFA) (3%), 2,5-bis(hydroxymethyl)tetrahydrofuran (DHM‐THF) (23%), 2-methyltetrahydrofuran-5-aldehyde (4.5%) and methyltetrahydrofuryl alcohol (6%) and 2-hexanone (1.6%) (Schemes V and VI). This suggests that the acidity of ZnCl2 is not the only reason for the enhanced activity of the catalyst, resulting in high DMF yield. Since the authors detect leached zinc in the solution, it is likely that the role of Zn2+ which leaches into solution during the reaction is as described by Abu-Omar and co-workers, where Zn2+ ions bind to the substrate and activates its cleavage upon encountering Ru–H or Pd–H sites on the catalyst surface (98).

Similarly, in the presence of a RhCl3/HX catalytic system (X = I and Cl), a mixture of furan ring saturated and ring-opening products were also obtained from xylose, glucose, fructose, sucrose, inulin, cellulose and corn stover. The reaction is conducted in aqueous media and the main products obtained were DMTHF (up to 85% from fructose and 80% from cellulose) and MTHF (up to 80% from xylose and 56% from corn stover) (99, 100). These are gas chromatography (GC) yields and have not been isolated. DMHTHF has been hydrogenated to 1,6-hexandiol, which was converted into caprolactone and caprolactam (101).

Generally, molecular hydrogen has been the source of hydrogen in HDO reactions; but the use of hydrogen transfer reagents is safer than using molecular hydrogen in HDO reactions. Here, formic acid as a hydrogen source in the conversion of HMF, fructose and lignocellulose (with Ru/C catalyst) to chemicals provide useful examples of non-molecular hydrogen in HDO reactions. For example, when HMF was used as a substrate, 37% DMF, 43% 5-formyloxymethyl furfural (FMF) and 3% LA were obtained. Other examples include the initial direct conversion of lignocellulose and carbohydrate substrates in a Brønsted acid IL to catalyse the conversion of these substrates to HMF, and then subsequent use of formic acid as hydrogen source and Ru/C as catalyst to convert HMF to FMF, which was further converted to DMF. Interestingly, the feedstock in this reaction appears to be crucial in determining the yield of DMF. The yields of DMF from cellulose is 16% whilst the yield is 10% from sugars compared to when pure HMF was used as the substrate (37%) (102). Isopropyl alcohol can also be used as a hydrogen source in place of formic acid in the Ru/C catalysed conversion of HMF to DMF. The yield of DMF obtained was 81% and the reaction was said to proceed by the formation of 2,5-bis(hydroxymethyl)furfural as an intermediate (103).

MF has a high density (913 kg cm–3), low flash point (–11°C) and low solubility in water, unlike ethanol. The energy density of MF is higher than that of ethanol and similar to DMF (Table II) (91). MF is a water soluble liquid, it is flammable and has a chocolate odour. It is also used as feedstock, as a solvent and has been widely used in pesticides and the perfume industry (104, 105). MF production proceeds by dehydration of xylose followed by HDO of furfural. The best catalyst for this reaction is a polymer supported Pd(II) complex which exhibited 100% yield conversion of furfural into MF with H2 pressure 106).

EMF is another compound that can be accessed by etherification of HMF (Scheme V). It is a potential biofuel and has an energy density of 30.3 MJ l–1, which is higher than that of ethanol and comparable to gasoline. It has, thus, been proposed as an additive and/or substitute for diesel as a fuel (8991). Lin and coworkers have used Agx H3-x PW catalysts, prepared through a H+ exchange for Ag+, for esterification of HMF to EMF. In using this series of catalysts, AgH2PW displayed higher catalytic performance than Ag2HPW and Ag3PW in the etherification of HMF; producing a 69.5% yield of EMF when fructose was the starting material. The catalyst could be recycled and showed no marked decrease in activity (107).

In addition to EMF, 2,5-bisalkoxymethylfurans have also been identified as potential renewable liquid fuels. Bell and coworkers have reported a one-pot process involving the sequential dehydration and reductive etherification of fructose to 2,5-bisalkoxymethylfurans. The dehydration and etherification of fructose was performed using Amberlyst®-15 and Pt/Sn/alumina at 110°C to form 5-(alkoxymethyl)furfurals and 2-(2,2-alkoxyethyl)-5-(alkoxymethyl)furans. At 60°C and under H2 pressure, 5-bisalkoxymethylfurans and 2,5-bisalkoxymethyl furans could still be obtained in good yields (108).

7.2 Polysaccharides and Monosaccharides to Furfuryl Alcohol and Pentanediols

FA is prepared industrially by the catalytic hydrogenation of furfural using Ni and Cu/CrO catalysts. If the catalyst used is not selective, hydrogenation of furfural yields not only the desired products but also a variety of byproducts including furan, THF, THFA and ring-opening products, such as pentanol and pentanediols (Scheme VI) (109114). Pd/SiO2 as catalyst for the hydrogenation of furfural using 1 bar of H2 at 230°C has been reported by Sitthisa et al. to produce FA in a yield of 65% (109). Similarly, furfural transformation to FA has been performed in the vapour phase using silica supported Pt nanoparticles. With small Pt nanoparticles on SiO2, decarboxylation of furfural to furan was observed while larger sized Pt nanoparticles produced furan and FA (Scheme V) (110).

HDO of furfural can also produce 1,2-pentanediol (1,2-PDO), 1,4-pentanediol (1,4-PDO) and 1,5-pentanediol (1,5-PDO) which can be used as monomers for the synthesis of polyesters (Scheme VI) (111). In an investigation of the effect of adding noble metals (including Ru, Rh, Pt, Pd) to Ir-ReOx /SiO2 in the one-pot conversion of furfural to 1,5-PDO, Pd 0.66 wt%-Ir-ReOx /SiO2 was found to be superior. The Pd 0.66 wt%-Ir-ReOx /SiO2 gave 71.4% 1,5-PDO while 28.6% of the products consisted of 1,4-PDO, 1,2-PDO, 1-pentanol, 2-pentanol, THFA and 2-MTHF (112).

Catalyst characterisation revealed that Pd–Ir–ReOx /SiO2 catalyst consisted of Pd metal particles with ReOx species (Pd–ReOx ) and Ir metal particles with ReOx species (Ir–ReOx ) (Figure 5). The Pd–ReOx species catalyse hydrogenation of furfural into THFA and the Ir–ReOx species catalyse the HDO of THFA to 1,5-PDO. The ReOx species modified Pd sites (i.e. decreased Pd metal average particle size) and increased the dispersion of Pd metal. This effect of ReOx is said to be linked to the high performance of Pd–Ir–ReOx /SiO2 in the hydrogenation of furfural into THFA. Supported Ir was found to be in the metallic state and the Re species form low valent oxide clusters (ReOx ) that partially cover the Ir metal surface, therefore the Ir–ReOx species can catalyse the hydrogenolysis of THFA to 1,5-PDO (112).

Fig. 5.

Model structure of Pd–Ir–ReOx /SiO2 and the role of each species in the conversion of furfural to 1,5-PDO (Reproduced from (112) with permission of The Royal Society of Chemistry)

Model structure of Pd–Ir–ReOx /SiO2 and the role of each species in the conversion of furfural to 1,5-PDO (Reproduced from (112) with permission of The Royal Society of Chemistry)

More recently, Huber et al. reported a new process for the production of 1,5-PDO (84% yield) from furfural. This route to 1,5-PDO proceeds via hydrogenation → dehydration/hydration → ring-opening tautomerisation and → hydrogenation reactions, using Ni, γ-Al2O3 and Ru catalysts respectively. While this process has more reaction steps than conventional hydrogenation of furfural to THFA followed by HDO of THFA to 1,5-PDO, techno-economic assessments demonstrate that the process is economically viable (113).

Hronec and co-workers described a novel, highly selective transformation of furfural to CPO (Scheme V). Selective rearrangement of furfural to CPO by 5%Pt/C is achieved in water, at reaction temperatures of 140°C to 190°C and hydrogen pressures of 30 to 80 bar. Notably, when 5% Ru/C and 5% Pd/C were used under the same conditions, a mixture of typical furfural hydrogenation products (FA, THFA, MF and MTHF) were obtained (114).

Homogeneous catalysts such as [Pd(OAc)2]/Dt BPF (Dt BPF = 1,1′-bis(di-tert butylphosphino) ferrocene), [Rh(CO)2(acac)]/H2WO4, {[Cp*Ru (CO)2]2(μ-H)}+(OTf)/HOTf (Cp* = C5Me5 and OTf = CF3SO3) and cis -[Ru(6,6′-Cl2bpy)2(OH2)2](OTf)2 (6,6′-Cl2bpy = 6,6′-dichloro-2,2′-bipyridine) catalyse HDO of C–O bonds (115118). For example, {[Cp*Ru(CO)2]2(μ-H)}+(OTf) is an efficient catalyst for the dehydration of 1,2-PDO followed by hydrogenation to form n -propanol under acidic conditions. This catalyst produced 54% n -propanol after 30 h at 92% 1,2-PDO conversion (119, 120). These homogeneously catalysed reactions are typically carried out at temperatures ranging from 80°C to 120°C, meaning the active species is likely a molecular catalyst or a ‘cocktail’ of catalysts, comprising molecular catalyst and nanoparticles (121).

Direct conversion of furfural to γ-valerolactone (GVL) by Brønsted and Lewis acid zeolite catalysts has been reported. Up to 80% GVL yield was achieved through Meerwein-Ponndorf-Verley (MPV) reduction of furfural to FA, followed by hydrolysis of FA to LA and then selective MPV hydrogenation of LA to GVL (122, 123).

7.3 Polysaccharides and Monosaccharides to Levulinic Acid, Ethyl Levulinate and γ-Valerolactone

Acid catalysed dehydration of hexoses leads to the formation of HMF, which can undergo rehydration in acidic medium to give LA and formic acid (Scheme V). LA is a particularly attractive platform molecule, because it can be converted into valuable chemicals and advanced biofuels (124). For example, valeric biofuels which are compatible with current transportation fuels are accessible from LA (125, 126). If dehydration of hexoses is carried out in ethanol, then esterification of LA with ethanol leads to ethyl levulinate (EL) (Scheme V). EL is an acceptable diluent for biodiesel fuels with high saturated fatty acid content (127).

GFBiochemicals’ Caserta plant in Milan, Italy, currently produces LA and its coproduct FA from non-edible biomass feedstock (wood, grass, wheat straw and cellulose) via an acid catalysed process (ATLAS TechnologyTM). This company also has plans to expand its production portfolio to LA derivatives, such as LA-esters and LA-ketals, GVL, MTHF and methylbutanediol (MeBDO) (128). Hydrogenation of LA in the presence of a metal catalyst with an external H2 source or formic acid as the source of hydrogen gives GVL. GVL is a promising bio-derived molecule and it is attractive for its physical and chemical properties. It has low toxicity, an acceptable and definitive smell which makes detection of leaks and spills easy, it is safe to store and move globally in large quantities, has high flash (96°C) and boiling (207°C) points as well as a low melting point (–31°C). It is also used as an additive in the food industry and as a green solvent (129133). Bond et al. have proposed a pathway to renewable butene, using GVL, which can be oligomerised to long chain alkenes for liquid fuels and commodity chemicals production. Using formic acid as the source of hydrogen in the hydrogenation of LA is more economical because dehydration of hexoses produces formic acid in equimolar amounts to LA. In the presence of a catalyst, formic acid decomposes to carbon dioxide and H2 and hence can be used as an internal source of hydrogen (Scheme VII) (131).

Scheme VII.

Production of GVL using formic acid as a source of hydrogen; the use of external molecular hydrogen is also known (Reprinted in part with permission from (131), Copyright (2014) American Chemical Society)

Production of GVL using formic acid as a source of hydrogen; the use of external molecular hydrogen is also known (Reprinted in part with permission from (131), Copyright (2014) American Chemical Society)

Quaker Oats, USA, produces GVL on a commercial scale from LA using chromium(III) oxide (Cr2O3) and copper(II) oxide (CuO) at 200°C (134). Metal catalysts, such as Pd, Ir, Ni, Cu, Pt, Re, Rh, Au and Ru have been used in the presence of H2 to produce GVL from LA (135138). Manzer studied this reaction using Ir, Rh, Ru, Pd, Rh, Pt and Re supported on carbon, and found that 5% Ir, Pd and Rh were active in the conversion of LA to GVL but their selectivity to GVL was rather low. Ni had the lowest activity and selectivity under the same conditions and Ru had the best activity and selectivity (Figure 6) (135).

Fig. 6.

Manzer’s results from catalytic hydrogenation of LA at 150°C, 2 h reaction time, 800 psi H2 pressure, 5% metal loading on carbon (Reprinted from (135). Copyright (2004), with permission from Elsevier)

Manzer’s results from catalytic hydrogenation of LA at 150°C, 2 h reaction time, 800 psi H2 pressure, 5% metal loading on carbon (Reprinted from (135). Copyright (2004), with permission from Elsevier)

While heterogeneous catalysts have dominated LA to GVL reactions, (135141) homogenous catalysts have also been studied. Particularly, water soluble homogeneous catalysts have been attractive because GVL does not form an azeotropic mixture with water, therefore the catalyst can be recovered by distillation and reused (129131, 142). Hydrogenation of LA to produce GVL has been examined in aqueous solution using various water soluble phosphine ligands in combination with the metal precursors Ru(acac)3 and RuCl3x H2O (Table III) (143147). GVL was obtained in 97% yield within 5 h, using a Ru(acac)3/TPPTS (TPPTS = p (C6H4-m -SO3Na)3) catalytic system (144, 147).

Table III

Selected Homogeneous Noble Metal Homogenous Catalysts That Have Been Used in the Hydrogenation of LA to GVL (131, 142–151)

CatalystT, °CReductantTime, hGVL, %TOF, h–1, molGVLmol–1Ruh–1Ref.
a[Ru(acac)3]/PBu3/NH4PF6 160 H2 100 bar 18 100 (143, 144)
a[Ru(acac)3]/P(n -Oct)3 160 H2 100 bar 18 99 (143)
c[Cp*Ir(4,4-di-OH-bpy)(H2O)]SO4 120 H2 10 bar 1 98 12,200 (142)
120 H2 10 bar 4 87 4326 (148)
6-(C6Me6)Ru(bpy)(H2O)]SO4 70 HCO2Na 18 b25 (143)
d[Ru(acac)3]/TPPTS 140 H2 70 bar 12 95 (146)
H2 50 bar 5 97 (147)
e[Ru(acac)3]/R2P(C6H4-m -SO3Na)2 140 H2 100 bar 1.8 92 6370 (TON) (145)
RuCl3.x H2O/PPh3 200 HCO2H/pyridine 6 93 (147)
200 HCO2H/NEt3 6 95 (147)

100 H2 50 bar 24 98 71,000 (TON) (149)

130 H2 12 bar 2 99 493 (150)
[Ru(acac)3]/Triphos

160 H2 100 bar 18 g5 (144)

100 8 99.9 177 (131)

110 H2 20 bar 12 100 202 (151)

120 HCO2H/KOH 16 100 200 (151)

aNo base added

b1,4-PDO and MTHF were also produced

cCp* = η5-C5Me5

dTPPTS = p (C6H4-m -SO3Na)3

eR = Me, i Pr, cyclopentyl, n Bu, n Pr

fPotassium hydroxide (KOH) 1.2 equiv.

g95%,1,4-PDO was produced

hKOH 0.05 equiv.

iKOH 1 equiv.

Formic acid was used as a hydrogen source in [(η6-C6Me6)Ru(bpy)(H2O)]SO4 catalysed transformation of LA, in water, to give in GVL and 1,4-PDO. In this same study, [Ru(acac)3]/PBu3/NH4PF6 afforded 100% GVL from LA (142). Mika et al. demonstrated that LA could be reduced effectively to GVL in the presence of an in situ catalyst generated from Ru(acac)3 and different sulfonated phosphines with the general formula Rn P(C6H4-m -SO3Na)3–n (n = 1, 2; R = Me, n Pr, i Pr, n Bu, Cp) without the need for a base. The n BuP(C6H4-m- SO3Na)2 showed the highest activity at 99% GVL. The catalyst was successfully recycled for six consecutive runs without loss of activity (146).

Ir trihydride catalysts bearing a PNP pincer ligand showed extremely high activity in LA to GVL conversion giving up to 98% GVL yield. Recovery of the catalyst was demonstrated. This was done by removal of the product by vacuum and the remaining catalyst was redissolved in LA and exhibited similar activity to before distillation (149). Conversion of LA to GVL was studied using p -cymene Ru(II) N -heterocyclic carbene (NHC) complexes as (pre)catalyst in water. The complex (Table III) was reduced in situ to form highly catalytically active Ru nanoparticles which deactivated in subsequent catalytic runs due to aggregation (150).

Horváth and coworkers showed that LA and a small excess of formic acid can be converted to GVL in the presence of Shvo’s catalysts. At 100°C, the catalyst rearranged to form a Ru hydrido catalytically active species (Table III) and yields higher than 99% after 8 h were recorded. The formation of 1,4-PDO and MTHF, the typical side products of the reduction of GVL with molecular hydrogen, was not observed (131).

Solvent free conversion of LA to GVL has been achieved with pyrazolyl-phosphite and pyrazolyl-phosphinite Ru(II) complexes as (pre)catalysts, using both molecular hydrogen and formic acid as hydrogen sources. With H2 (15 bar) 100% GVL yield obtained at 110°C, while with formic acid at 100°C, 100% GVL was obtained. In order to understand whether formic acid acts as a hydrogen transfer reagent or a source of H2 through prior decomposition, in situ NMR studies, where the reaction was monitored in a J Young nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) tube containing the (pre)catalyst, KOH and formic acid at 120°C, were carried out. Within 30 min of the reaction, hydrogen gas was observed by proton (1H)-NMR spectroscopy with a H2 signal at 4.56 ppm. The active species was found to be a cocktail of nanoparticles and molecular catalysts as evidenced by mercury poisoning tests. The catalyst could be recycled and reused up to three times (151).

8. Conversion of Polysaccharides, Oligosaccharides and Monosaccharides to Sugar Alcohols and Hydrocarbons

8.1 Polysaccharides and Monosaccharides to Sugar Alcohols and Diols

Hydrogenation of cellulose, oligosaccharides, disaccharides and monosaccharides results in the formation of sugar alcohols or polyols such as xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol which are important chemicals widely used as monomers in the plastics industry. Sugar alcohols also have applications in the food industry in the substitution of sugars such as glucose, sucrose and fructose. Xylitol is most frequently used in place of sugar, as it has similar sweetness and lower energy content than sucrose. From sugar alcohols it is also possible to produce renewable hydrogen and hydrocarbons which will be discussed in Section 8.2 of this review (152161).

The catalytic conversion of cellulose to sugar alcohols is a two-step process, which includes hydrolysis of cellulose to monosaccharides, followed by the hydrogenation of the sugars to sugar alcohols. Sels and coworkers used water soluble HPAs and a Ru/C catalyst to transform cellulose to sugar alcohols. At 190°C and (95 bar H2), the conversion of cellulose was 100% with 85% yield (152). Palkovits et al. have also demonstrated that the transformation of cellulose to sugar alcohols was possible using a combination of HPAs and Ru/C. Sugar alcohols were obtained in a yield of 81% (153). Liu et al. have also demonstrated cellulose to sugar alcohols conversion with Ru/C at 245°C and 60 bar H2. They obtained 40% sugar alcohols of which 30% was sorbitol and 10% mannitol (154). It is striking to see that in the presence of HPAs, which are acidic, catalytic conversion of cellulose to sugar alcohols on Ru/C proceeds to give higher yields at comparably lower temperatures than when no HPAs are added.

Hydrolytic hydrogenation of cellulose was shown by Fukuoka et al. The reaction gave 58% sorbitol yield at 190°C in water over a Ru/AC catalyst (155). Tsubaki et al. have presented a catalytic system that consists of Pt/RGO (RGO = reduced graphene oxide) for the hydrogenation of cellulose and cellobiose to sorbitol. Sorbitol yield was 91.5% from cellobiose and 58.9% from cellulose (156).

Ru and Os complexes have been used, as homogeneous catalysts, in conversion of fructose (to glycerol, propylene glycol (PG), ethylene glycol (EG) and sugar alcohols) (157, 158), mannose and inulin (to sugar alcohols) (159) and glucose (to sorbitol) (160). Recently, Wang and coworkers reported the first example of a highly selective homogenous Ru(II)/H2SO4 catalytic system which promoted the conversion of cellobiose and cellulose (at 100°C and 50 bar H2 over 16 h) to sorbitol, 1,4-sorbitan, glucose and a negligible amount of HMF (0.1%). Starting from cellobiose, 91.4% sorbitol, 3.1% 1,4-sorbitan and 5.3% glucose were afforded at 100% conversion, whilst from cellulose 21.9% sorbitol, 7.6% 1,4-sorbitan and 8.4% glucose were produced at 40% conversion. Sorbitol can be further converted to sorbitan and isosorbide; thus suggesting that the sorbitan in the above study may have been produced from further reaction of the sorbitol. The authors further proposed a mechanism for the reaction (Scheme VIII) which involved in situ generation of the catalytically active Rh–H species 1 which inserted into the C=O bond of glucose (to form 2) of the initially hydrolysed cellulose. This is then followed by a metal-ligand assisted proton transfer to the glucose O1 and C1 3 coupled with sorbitol expulsion to regenerate the (pre)catalyst (161).

Scheme VIII.

Proposed mechanism for the catalytic hydrogenation of cellulose with Ru(II) molecular catalyst (Reprinted with permission from (161). Copyright (2016) American Chemical Society)

Proposed mechanism for the catalytic hydrogenation of cellulose with Ru(II) molecular catalyst (Reprinted with permission from (161). Copyright (2016) American Chemical Society)

EG, 1,2-PG, 1,3-PG and glycerol are the simplest sugar alcohols and are used as emulsifiers, dehumidifying agents, anti-freeze agents, lubricants, solvents, polymer monomers and as pharmaceutical intermediates. Diols are currently produced from fossil derived feedstock (petroleum) by hydration of propylene and ethylene oxide (162). In 2008, Chen and coworkers reported the direct conversion of cellulose to EG in a yield of 61% using a nickel-tungsten carbide catalyst (163). Since then, studies aimed at understanding the reaction mechanism of cellulose to EG and 1,2-PG have been conducted (164167). The major mechanistic pathway involves hydrolysis of cellulose (to glucose and oligosaccharides) → retro-aldol condensation (of glucose to form glycol aldehyde and erythrose) → hydrogenation of glycol aldehyde to EG. If glucose isomerises to fructose, then 1,2-PG is formed (Scheme IX) (165, 166).

Scheme IX.

Reaction pathways involved in cellulose transformation to EG and 1,2-PG (Reprinted (adapted) with permission from (165, 166). Copyright (2016, 1995) American Chemical Society)

Reaction pathways involved in cellulose transformation to EG and 1,2-PG (Reprinted (adapted) with permission from (165, 166). Copyright (2016, 1995) American Chemical Society)

Catalysts such as Ru/AC/H2WO4 have been employed in cellulose conversion to EG (168). Liu and coworkers reported efficient conversion of cellulose into EG, 1,2-PG and sorbitol, as dominant products on Ru/C in the presence of tungsten trioxide (WO3). It was found that WO3 crystallites catalysed hydrolysis of cellulose as well as selective C–C bond cleavage, while Ru/C was responsible for hydrogenation (169).

EG and 1,2-PG production from sugar alcohols has also been reported. The most studied are sorbitol and xylitol while Ni- and Ru-based catalysts are most used. For example, Ru nanofibres, Ru/C, Ni-Re and Ni/Al2O3 in the presence of bases such as calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)2), calcium oxide (CaO), KOH and sodium methoxide (NaOMe) catalyse sugar alcohols to EG and 1,2-PG (170173).

The Changchun Dacheng Group, China, has developed a process that produces 10,000 tonnes of 2,3-butandiol (2,3-BD) annually. This process integrates bio and catalytic conversion by firstly enzymatically (by glucoamylase) hydrolysing starch to glucose. Then a catalyst is employed in conversion of the glucose to sorbitol, which is then catalytically cracked into a mixture of C2 to C4 diols and polyols. After purification steps, 97% purity 1,2-PG, EG and 2,3-BD are obtained, in which the yield of 2,3-BD is 5% (167).

8.2 Renewable Hydrogen and Hydrocarbons from Polysaccharides, Disaccharides and Monosaccharides

Cellulose, oligosaccharide, disaccharide or monosaccharide and sugar alcohols have been transformed to hydrogen and hydrocarbons (alkanes). This work was pioneered by Dumesic (26, 174–177). Aqueous phase dehydration/hydrogenation (APD/H) produces alkanes and aqueous phase reforming (APR) leads to hydrogen and gaseous alkanes (primarily methane) (26, 174–177). Cortright and coworkers have demonstrated that hydrogen can be produced from sugars and sugar alcohols in an aqueous phase reforming process using a Pt-based catalyst. Glucose was converted to hydrogen and gaseous alkanes, with a hydrogen yield of 50% (174). Later, they used Pt/SiO2–Al2O3, Pd/SiO2–Al2O3 and Pt/Al2O3 to convert sorbitol to hexane. Sorbitol is transformed on these bifunctional catalysts by a pathway that involves the formation of hydrogen and CO2 on the appropriate metal catalyst (Pt or Pd) and the dehydration of sorbitol on a solid acid catalyst (SiO2 or Al2O3). This is followed by hydrogenation of the dehydrated intermediates (for example isosorbide or enolic species) by hydrogen produced in the water gas shift reaction on Pt or Pd, which leads to the overall conversion of sorbitol to alkanes plus CO2 and water (175).

Beller has recently described a procedure for hydrogen generation from biomass (such as glucose, fructose, cellobiose, cellulose and ligncellulose) using Ir and Ru pincer-complexes as (pre)catalysts. Hydrogen was produced using ppm amounts of (pre)catalyst at a turnover frequency (TOF) of up to 10,269 h–1 (from cellobiose in 1 h) and a turnover number (TON) of up to 6125 (from cellulose in 1 h) (176).

Dumesic proposed that C7 to C15 alkanes (which have a molecular weight appropriate for transportation fuel components) can be produced from carbohydrates by acid catalysed dehydration, followed by aldol condensation (over solid base catalysts) to form large organic compounds. These molecules may be converted into alkanes by HDO over bifunctional catalysts (Mg-Al oxide and Pd/Al2O3) (177). The total HDO of cellulosic biomass including biomass derived substrates such as glucose, xylose, sugar alcohols, LA, HMF and furfural to produce C5 to C15 alkanes has recently been reviewed (178).

9. Conversion of Cellulose, Disaccharides and Monosaccharides to Organic acids

9.1 Polysaccharides, Disaccharides and Monosaccharides to Levulinic Acid, Formic Acid, Acetic Acid and Glycolic Acid

Cellulose and glucose derived carbohydrates can be transformed into a range of organic acids (Scheme X) (8991, 179).

Scheme X.

Reaction pathways for the conversion of biomass derived glucose into organic acids (8991, 179)

Reaction pathways for the conversion of biomass derived glucose into organic acids (89–91, 179)

The formation of LA from cellulose in the presence of mineral acids or Lewis acids has been extensively studied. This multistep process involves hydrolysis of cellulose to glucose ↔ fructose → dehydration of fructose to HMF → and rehydration of HMF to LA and formic acid (Section 7.3) (180182). Acetic acid can be obtained by hydrothermal oxidation of glucose or cellulose in the presence of a base, such as NaOH and Ca(OH)2 (183, 184).

Efficient, VO2+, Pb2+ and Ni2+ catalysed conversion of glucose, cellulose and lignocellulose into lactic acid, which is a high value chemical used for the production of fine chemicals and biodegradable plastics, has been achieved. Lactic acid yields ranging from 25% to 60% were obtained at high temperatures (185187). This topic has been reviewed (188).

Another approach reported by Jin et al. is the conversion of glucose or cellulose to HMF and lactic acid, then oxidation of the lactic acid and HMF to give acetic acid (189). Glycolic acid production from cellulose has been less studied, nonetheless Keggin-type Mo polyoxometalates (POMs) have been successfully employed in the conversion of cellulose to glycolic acid (190).

Apart from being a coproduct of HMF hydration, formic acid can be produced from cellulose via oxidation. Formic acid is a starting material for the production of formate esters, which can be utilised in the production of a large variety of useful organic derivatives such as aldehydes, ketones, carboxylic acids and amides. It has been used in the rubber, agricultural and pharmaceutical industries. It has applications as a mordant, auxiliary agent in the dyeing industry, a disinfectant and its formate salt is a useful de-icing agent (191). Notably, formic acid has energy content at least five times higher than that of commercially available lithium ion batteries and therefore represents a convenient hydrogen carrier in fuel cells making it a highly exploitable chemical on the hydrogen energy storage front (192).

Currently formic acid is produced from fossil derived feedstock. The production of formic acid from renewable resources such as cellulose is desirable for the advancement of green chemistry. Formic acid has been produced from glucose and cellulose using alkali metal bases (193), vanadium substituted Keggin-type POM (H5PV2Mo10O40) (194) and ferric sulfate (Fe2(SO4)3) (194).

9.2 Polysaccharides, Disaccharides and Monosaccharides to 2,5-Furandicarboxylic Acid, Gluconic Acid and Glucaric Acid

The oxidation of HMF can generate 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) (Scheme X), which is an important platform molecule, which has been identified as a potential alternative to petroleum-based terephthalic acid for the production of resins and polymers (195, 196). FDCA is produced by a two-step process from cellulose or sugars (197). HMF is first prepared from C6 sugars or cellulose (5962), followed by HMF oxidation to FDCA with oxidants (198), metal catalysts (199204) or enzymes (205).

Recently, Avantium in The Netherlands and BASF, Germany, have announced that they are jointly preparing for the construction of the world’s first commercial plant for FDCA production from sugars. The Avantium process transforms fructose to HMF methyl ether, which is then oxidised (by [Co(OAc)] or [Mn(OAc)] and NaBr) to FDCA. The FDCA (replacement for petroleum-based terephthalic acid) will be combined with EG to produce polyethylenefuranoate (PEF), a next generation polyester. PEF is 100% bio-based and has a high market potential as a future packaging and film material (206).

Gluconic and glucaric acid are important intermediates and are used in the pharmaceutical, detergent and food industries (207). Currently, gluconic and glucaric acid are mainly produced by the enzymatic oxidation of glucose. Research efforts have been devoted to developing catalytic oxidation of glucose to gluconic acid (208211). For instance Au/TiO2 is an effective glucose oxidation catalyst and in the aqueous phase (using O2 oxidant) at 40–60°C, 100% conversion of glucose and 100% selectivity of gluconic acid was recorded in 4 h (212).

Comotti et al. used mono and bimetallic catalysts (Rh, Pd, Pt and Au) supported on carbon to effect the transformation of glucose to gluconic acid in water. The combination of Au-Pd resulted in 100% selectivity (213). The direct conversion of cellulose to gluconic acid is more necessary, however few reports of the route are known. The conversion of cellobiose and cellulose to gluconic acid over POM-supported Au nanoparticles (Au/Cs2.2H0.8PW12O40) was reported. Cs2.2H0.8PW12O40 without Au exhibited a low activity for the conversion (25%) of cellobiose and the main product was glucose. Upon loading of Au particles, the conversion of cellobiose increased to 96% and gluconic acid was the major product. This meant that the acidic sites (Cs2.2H0.8PW12O40) catalysed the hydrolysis of cellobiose and cellulose, and Au nanoparticles are responsible for the oxidation of glucose to gluconic acid (214). Cellobiose conversion to gluconic acid has also been demonstrated using sulfonated carbon supported Pt (Pt/C–SO3H) where 47% yield was obtained (215).

There are some studies on the oxidation of glucose to glucaric acid. A Pt/SiO2 (4 wt%) catalyst afforded 66% yield of glucaric acid at 90°C under 5 bar of O2, while at 119°C under 280 bar of O2 over a Pt–Au/TiO2 (4Pt–4Au wt%) catalyst a 71% yield of glucaric acid was recorded (216, 217).

Rennovia, USA, has developed a two-step catalytic process for producing adipic acid from glucose. The process starts by a selective catalytic oxidation of glucose to glucaric acid, followed by a selective catalytic HDO of glucaric acid to adipic acid (Scheme XI) (216218). The Rennovia renewable adipic acid process offers potential for significant commercial and environmental advantages compared to the current petrochemical process for the production of adipic acid (218).

Scheme XI.

Rennovia’s two-step process for production of bio-adipic acid from glucose (216218) (Reprinted with permission from (218))

Rennovia’s two-step process for production of bio-adipic acid from glucose (216–218) (Reprinted with permission from (218))

10. Conclusion and Outlook

Efficient and environmentally friendly conversion of cellulosic biomass and cellulose derived intermediates to renewable fuels, fuel additives and chemicals is of great interest to meet future liquid fuels and chemicals demand.

  • (a) Much effort has been focused on hydrolysis of cellulose and hemicellulose to sugars by mineral acids and Lewis acids in biphasic liquids and IL. While reactions carried out in IL or IL bearing acids give better yields, the use of IL is limited by their cost.

  • (b) Examples of noble metal catalysts, sometimes coupled with Lewis acids, (dominated by Cr-based which is also highly efficient) are used in cellulose hydrolysis and direct conversion of cellulose to HMF show that the presence of noble metals enhances the activity through a synergy between the two metals. Also the Cr species used is not suitable for large scale production due to toxicity. Hydrolysis of cellulose to fermentable sugars has been achieved and furfural has been produced (from agricultural waste) on a commercial scale since the 1920s, and also lignocellulosic HMF has reached industrial scale through the AVA Biochemicals process.

  • (c) HMF and furfural can be transformed by hydrogenation, rehydration, etherification, esterification, aldol condensation and hydrogenolysis or HDO to a variety of products which are biofuel candidates and intermediates for the synthesis of fine chemicals and functional materials. Among these DMF, MF, EMF, GVL, EL and valeric biofuels, known to be promising fuels and fuel additives, have superior properties compared to bioethanol. Conversion of HMF and furfural to these compounds via HDO is largely dominated by heterogeneous and homogeneous noble metal-based catalytic systems. Homogeneous catalysts dominate the downstream transformation and do not feature much in upstream processing. This has hampered the opportunity to gain a comprehensive insight into the role of individual components during catalytic transformations (at the molecular level) which can aid rational catalyst design. The effect of bimetallic systems versus monometallic systems shows that there is merit to having two metals forming a catalytic system, particularly where one metal serves as the acidic site (for dehydration or hydrolysis) and the other provides the HDO or oxidation site. Accessing these compounds by HDO and hydrogenation requires hydrogen and hence, where will the hydrogen come from? Renewable hydrogen can be obtained from biomass by APR or sourced from water by its electrolysis with electricity derived from wind or solar energy.

  • (d) The conversion of cellulose and sugars to organic acids and sugar alcohols has been studied extensively, and further HDO of sugar alcohols can lead to renewable alkanes in the C5–C15 range for gasoline and diesel fuel applications. Like most petroleum refining processes, biorefinery processes, particularly the downstream processes in (c) and (d), are all efficiently promoted by noble metal catalysts with Ru leading the group in the following trend: Ru>>Pt ≈ Pd ≈ Au>Rh>Ir>>Os. This highlights the need to design processes with metal recovery in mind, in order to reclaim expensive metals from waste streams for sustainability, environmental clean-up and possibly as a new source of metals for industry (219, 220).

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The Authors


Banothile Makhubela is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. She qualified with a BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics from the University of Zululand, South Africa, in 2005 and obtained a BSc (Hons) in Chemistry in 2006 from the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa. In 2008, she completed a MSc degree under the supervision the late Professor John R. Moss and Professor Gregory S. Smith, and later obtained a PhD from UCT (supervised by Professor Smith and Dr Anwar Jardine).


James Darkwa is a visiting Professor of Chemistry at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, and currently a Lead Researcher at the Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI), Botswana. He worked in academia for nearly 30 years before joining BITRI in January 2017. He holds a BSc (Hons) in Chemistry from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana, and a PhD in Chemistry from the University of New Brunswick, Canada.

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