“One Pot” Recipe for Biofuels

“One pot” catalyst converts up to 20% of dry biomass to a critical chemical used in biofuel production.

Selective hydrolysis and conversion of biomass hemicellulose to furfural
Image adapted with permission from Kim, ES et al. Energy & Fuels. 2012 26: 1298-1304. © 2012 American Chemical Society.
Schematic: selective hydrolysis and conversion of biomass hemicellulose to furfural.

The Science

Researchers identified and studied the properties of a dual-function catalyst that both extracts sugars from polysaccharides in intact plant biomass and selectively converts the resulting sugars to the chemical, furfural.

The Impact

The catalyst provides a simple “one pot” catalytic conversion of up to 20% dry mass of the plant material to furfural, a potential building block for hydrocarbon fuels and other economically important chemicals.


Furfural is a useful chemical that can be obtained from plant biomass. In addition to being a component in synthesis of industrial and household products, furfural has increasing potential as a non-petroleum-based, renewable building block for liquid transportation fuels. Strong acids have typically been used to make furfural by converting sugars such as xylose from hemicellulosic polysaccharides, a major component of plant biomass. However, this can result in breakdown of furfural to unwanted products, reducing overall yield. Research in the C3Bio Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) demonstrated that use of maleic acid, a weak acid, provides a more efficient method to obtain furfural. The researchers at Purdue University used kinetic studies to determine optimal temperatures and times for the two-step process using maleic acid first to extract xylose from untreated biomass, either maize, switchgrass, pine or poplar, and then to convert the xylose to furfural. Because maleic acid can accomplish both conversion steps, this “one-pot” strategy produced furfural at higher yields and resulted in less degradation of both xylose and furfural than use of strong acids. Further, this process may be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than other available technologies.


Mahdi M. Abu-Omar
Purdue University

Nathan S. Mosier
Purdue University

Maureen McCann
Director of the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio) EFRC


DOE Office of Science Basic Energy Sciences, Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRC) Program


Kim, E. S.; Liu, S.; Abu-Omar, M. M.; and Mosier, N. S. “Selective conversion of biomass hemicellulose to furfural using maleic acid with microwave heating” Energy Fuels, 26, 1298-1304 (2012). [DOI: 10.1021/ef2014106]

Related Links

Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio)

Highlight Categories

Program: BES , EFRCs

Performer: University