Ab initio dynamics of cellulose pyrolysis: Nascent decomposition pathways at 327 and 600 °c

Vishal Agarwal, Paul J. Dauenhauer, George W. Huber, Scott M. Auerbach

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We modeled nascent decomposition processes in cellulose pyrolysis at 327 and 600 °C using Car-Parrinello molecular dynamics (CPMD) simulations with rare events accelerated with the metadynamics method. We used a simulation cell comprised of two unit cells of cellulose Iβ periodically repeated in three dimensions to mimic the solid cellulose. To obtain initial conditions at reasonable densities, we extracted coordinates from larger classical NPT simulations at the target temperatures. CPMD-metadynamics implemented with various sets of collective variables, such as coordination numbers of the glycosidic oxygen, yielded a variety of chemical reactions such as depolymerization, fragmentation, ring opening, and ring contraction. These reactions yielded precursors to levoglucosan (LGA)-the major product of pyrolysis-and also to minor products such as 5-hydroxy-methylfurfural (HMF) and formic acid. At 327 °C, we found that depolymerization via ring contraction of the glucopyranose ring to the glucofuranose ring occurs with the lowest free-energy barrier (20 kcal/mol). We suggest that this process is key for formation of liquid intermediate cellulose, observed experimentally above 260 °C. At 600 °C, we found that a precursor to LGA (pre-LGA) forms with a free-energy barrier of 36 kcal/mol via an intermediate/transition state stabilized by anchimeric assistance and hydrogen bonding. Conformational freedom provided by expansion of the cellulose matrix at 600 °C was found to be crucial for formation of pre-LGA. We performed several comparison calculations to gauge the accuracy of CPMD-metadynamics barriers with respect to basis set and level of theory. We found that free-energy barriers at 600 °C are in the order pre-LGA < pre-HMF < formic acid, explaining why LGA is the kinetically favored product of fast cellulose pyrolysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)14958-14972
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of the American Chemical Society
Issue number36
StatePublished - Sep 12 2012


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