Researchers from University of Sheffield suggested that pine needles can be broken down to obtain useful chemicals
Christmas trees have several pine needles, which take a long time to decompose compared to other tree leaves. Moreover, degraded pine needles emit huge volumes of greenhouse gases, thereby contributing to carbon footprint. Now, a team of researchers led by Cynthia Kartey, a PhD student from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, found that chemicals can be extracted from pine needles to produce useful products.
A complex polymer known as lignocellulose forms the major component of pine needles. The complexity of this polymer is a major hurdle in using pine needles as a product for biomass energy to most industrial processes. According to Cynthia, the research is focused on the breakdown of lignocellulose’s complex structure into simple and high-valued industrial chemical feed stocks such as sugars and phenolics. Moreover, biorefineries can use a relatively simple yet unexplored process to break down the pine needles. The team used heat and solvents such as glycerol to break down the chemical structure of pine needles into a liquid product (bio-oil) and a solid by-product (bio-char). The bio-oil contains glucose, acetic acid, and phenol that find application in several industries. Glucose in used in the production of sweeteners for food, acetic acid for making paint, adhesives, and vinegar.
According to the researchers, the approach is sustainable and generates zero waste as the solid by-product can be used in other industrial chemical processes. Cynthia suggested that trees that are used to decorate house over the festive period can be turned into paint. According to the researchers, around 8 million natural Christmas trees are used in the U.K. during the festive period annually, of which around 7 million trees end up in landfill. Use of pine needles can offer chemicals that can be used to replace less sustainable chemicals currently used in various industries. This in turn can lead to a significant decrease in carbon footprint.