Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Gayfree Barney Ellison

Second Advisor

Mark R. Nimlos

Third Advisor

Heather Lewandowski


Lignin is a complex, aromatic polymer abundant in cellulosic biomass (trees, switchgrass etc.). Thermochemical breakdown of lignin for liquid fuel production results in undesirable polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that lead to tar and soot byproducts. The fundamental chemistry governing these processes is not well understood. We have studied the unimolecular thermal decomposition mechanisms of aromatic lignin model compounds using a miniature SiC tubular reactor. Products are detected and characterized using time-of-flight mass spectrometry with both single photon (118.2 nm; 10.487 eV) and 1 + 1 resonance-enhanced multiphoton ionization (REMPI) as well as matrix isolation infrared spectroscopy. Gas exiting the heated reactor (300 K -- 1600 K) is subject to a free expansion after a residence time of approximately 100 µs. The expansion into vacuum rapidly cools the gas mixture and allows the detection of radicals and other highly reactive intermediates. By understanding the unimolecular fragmentation patterns of phenol (C6H5OH), anisole (C6H5OCH3) and benzaldehyde (C6H5CHO), the more complicated thermocracking processes of the catechols (HO-C6H4-OH), methoxyphenols (HO-C6H4-OCH3) and hydroxybenzaldehydes (HO-C6H4-CHO) can be interpreted. These studies have resulted in a predictive model that allows the interpretation of vanillin, a complex phenolic ether containing methoxy, hydroxy and aldehyde functional groups. This model will serve as a guide for the pyrolyses of larger systems including lignin monomers such as coniferyl alcohol. The pyrolysis mechanisms of the dimethoxybenzenes (H3C-C6H4-OCH3) and syringol, a hydroxydimethoxybenzene have also been studied. These results will aid in the understanding of the thermal fragmentation of sinapyl alcohol, the most complex lignin monomer. In addition to the model compound work, pyrolyisis of biomass has been studied via the pulsed laser ablation of poplar wood. With the REMPI scheme, aromatic lignin decomposition products are directly and selectively detected. A number of these products are the lignin model compounds listed above, providing a direct link between the model compound studies and the pyrolysis of actual biomass.