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Published: 26 Oct, 2015

Scientific breakthrough: Ionic liquids interesting in extracting molecules from wood

NEWS Thanks to their unique properties, ionic liquids are all in the rage as solvents as, for instance, “green” sustainable chemical processes. Recently, two research teams at Umeå University discovered how enzymes can perform their catalytical processes in a switchable ionic liquid. The discovery paves way for enzymatic refinement of cellulose to precious molecules and industrial products. The results have been published in the journal ChemSusChem.

Ionic liquids are salts in fluid form at room temperature – compared with regular cooking salt, sodium chloride, which melts at 800 degrees Celsius. This characteristic means that ionic liquids have unique properties making them important solvents for “green” and sustainable chemistry.

In a previous study, the professor in chemistry Jyri-Pekka Mikkolas’ research group has discovered that hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin can be selectively separated and dissolved using a new type of so-called switchable ionic liquid. Recently, a team of Magnus Wolf-Watz and Jyri-Pekka Mikkolas research teams have discovered that enzymes can function in this particular ionic liquid. This is far from evident since enzymes have evolved into functioning in water solutions.

Picture of ionic liquid at Umeå University
Ionic liquid with unique properties.

“Our discovery is a scientific breakthrough! This is the launch that enables us to extract small key molecules directly from wood. There are many applications not in the least in the production of ethanol as fuel but also a number of other things,” says Magnus Wolf-Watz, associate professor at the Department of Chemistry.

The main experimental technology used is NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. A crucial component in the work has been the development of a completely new method to determine the enzymatic activity. The assay procedure is based on real time measurements of the chemical reaction using 31P NMR spectroscopy. The NMR infrastructure at Umeå University is at international top class and are funded by the Kempe and Wallenberg Foundations.

Picture of NMR infrastructure at Umeå University.
Per Rogne and Magnus Wolf-Watz in front of the NMR infrastructure.

“This development will be of major importance to the measurement of enzymatic catalysis in complex solutions and preparations, and the method is already being used in new projects,” says Jyri-Pekka Mikkola, professor at the Department of Chemistry.

The research team is represented by researchers from both biochemistry and technical chemistry. Jyri-Pekka Mikkolas’ research team is a part of Bio4Energy’s research environment that aims to take Swedish biorefinery research to whole new levels. Jyri-Pekka Mikkolas’ research team also belongs to the network Wallenberg Wood Science Center.

First author of the work is research engineer Per Rogne. The Kempe Foundations have funded Per Rogne’s research for two years.

About Bio4Energy:

Bio4Energy is a strong research environment within bioenergy and biorefineries. The environment includes Umeå University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Umeå and Luleå University of Technology, research institutes and a comprehensive range of industrial networks.
Read more about Bio4Energy

About NMR for Life – a Swedish infrastructure

Infrastrukturen är ett samarbete mellan Umeå universitet och Göteborgs universitetRead more about NMR for Life


Dr. Per Rogne, Dr. Tobias Sparrman, Dr. Ikenna Anugwom, Dr. Jyri-Pekka Mikkola and Dr. Magnus Wolf-Watz: Realtime 31P NMR Investigation on the Catalytic Behavior of the Enzyme Adenylate kinase in the Matrix of a Switchable Ionic Liquid. ChemSusChem, published online 23 October 2015. DOI: 10.1002/cssc.201501104Scientific paper in the journal ChemSusChem

For more information, please contact:

Magnus Wolf-WatzPhone: +46 76-82 62 053

Jyri-Pekka MikkolaPhone: +46 70-620 03 71

Portrait photo for download. Photo: Johan Gunséus

Group photo on stairs. From left: Magnus Wolf-Watz, Per Rogne and Jyri-Pekka Mikkola

Group photo in lab. From left Magnus Wolf-Watz, Per Rogne and Jyri-Pekka Mikkola

Per Rogne and Magnus Wolf-Watz in front of NMR infrastructure

Group photo with green background. From left: Magnus Wolf-Watz, Per Rogne and Jyri-Pekka Mikkola

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Editor: Anna Lawrence