Lignin is an integral part of the plant cell wall, which provides rigidity to plants, also contributes to the recalcitrance of the lignocellulosic biomass to biochemical and biological deconstruction. Lignin is a promising renewable feedstock for aromatic chemicals; however, an efficient and economic lignin depolymerization method needs to be developed to enable the conversion. In this study, we investigated the depolymerization of alkaline lignin in aqueous 1-ethyl-3-methylimidazolium acetate [C2C1Im][OAc] under oxidizing conditions. Seven different transition metal catalysts were screened in presence of H2O2 as oxidizing agent in a batch reactor. CoCl2 and Nb2O5 proved to be the most effective catalysts in degrading lignin to aromatic compounds. A central composite design was used to optimize the catalyst loading, H2O2 concentration, and temperature for product formation. Results show that lignin was depolymerized, and the major degradation products found in the extracted oil were guaiacol, syringol, vanillin, acetovanillone, and homovanillic acid. Lignin streams were characterized by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and gel permeation chromatography to determine effects of the experimental parameters on lignin depolymerization. The weight-average molecular weight (Mw) of liquid stream lignin after oxidation, for CoCl2 and Nb2O5 catalysts were 1,202 and 1,520 g mol−1, respectively, lower than that of Kraft lignin. Polydispersity index of the liquid stream lignin increased as compared with Kraft lignin, indicating wide span of the molecular weight distribution as a result of lignin depolymerization. Results from this study provide insights into the role of oxidant and transition metal catalysts and the oxidative degradation reaction sequence of lignin toward product formation in presence of aqueous ionic liquid.

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Published in Frontiers in Energy Research, v. 5, article 21, p. 1-12.

Copyright © 2017 Das, Xu and Shi.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

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This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement No. 1632854 and 1355438 and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hatch-Multistate project under accession number 1003563.

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The information reported in this paper (17-05-073) is part of a project of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station and is published with the approval of the Director.

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fenrg.2017.00021/full#supplementary-material.

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