One of the key obstacles to extracting sugars from biomass is a complex polymer called lignin. Lignin, a major component of plant cell walls that gives plants their structural integrity, is the most difficult part of the plant to break down. UW–Madison professor of biochemistry John Ralph and his team discovered that it was possible to introduce weak bonds, or "zips," into the lignin polymer, which would make it much easier and cheaper to break apart. The researchers were successful in introducing these weak links into the lignin backbone of poplar trees, resulting in biomass that is much easier to degrade.
Zip-Lignin™ technology has the potential to reduce the costs involved in deconstructing biomass, a cost-reduction with wide ranging effects on the paper industries, the bio-products industries, and on the production of cellulosic biofuels.