Bialik E, Stenqvist B, Fang Y, Östlund Å, Furó I, Lindman B, Lund M, Bernin D
Cellulose, one of the most abundant renewable resources, is insoluble in most common solvents but dissolves in aqueous alkali under a narrow range of conditions. To elucidate the solubilization mechanism, we performed electrophoretic NMR on cellobiose, a subunit of cellulose, showing that cellobiose acts as an acid with two dissociation steps at pH 12 and 13.5. Chemical shift differences between cellobiose in NaOH and NaCl were estimated using 2D NMR and compared to DFT shift differences upon deprotonation. The dissociation steps are the deprotonation of the hemiacetal OH group and the deprotonation of one of four OH groups on the nonreducing anhydroglucose unit. MD simulations reveal that aggregation is suppressed upon charging cellulose chains in solution. Our findings strongly suggest that cellulose is to a large extent charged in concentrated aqueous alkali, a seemingly crucial factor for solubilization. This insight, overlooked in the current literature, is important for understanding cellulose dissolution and for synthesis of new sustainable materials.