• acids;
  • biomass;
  • heterogeneous catalysis;
  • pyrolysis;
  • sugars


Depolymerization of cellulose offers the prospect of inexpensive sugars from biomass. Breaking the glycosidic bonds of cellulose to liberate glucose has usually been pursued by acid or enzymatic hydrolysis although a purely thermal depolymerization route to sugars is also possible. Fast pyrolysis of pure cellulose yields primarily the anhydrosugar levoglucosan (LG) whereas the presence of naturally occurring alkali and alkaline earth metals (AAEMs) in biomass strongly catalyzes ring-breaking reactions that favor formation of light oxygenates. Here, we show a method of significantly increasing the yield of sugars from biomass by purely thermal means through infusion of certain mineral acids (phosphoric and sulfuric acid) into the biomass to convert the AAEMs into thermally stable salts (particularly potassium sulfates and phosphates). These salts not only passivate AAEMs that normally catalyze fragmentation of pyranose rings, but also buffer the system at pH levels that favor glycosidic bond breakage. It appears that AAEM passivation contributes to 80 % of the enhancement in LG yield while the buffering effect of the acid salts contributes to the balance of the enhancement.