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Practical, high-yield lignin depolymerization methods could greatly increase biorefinery productivity and profitability. However, development of these methods is limited by the presence of interunit carbon-carbon bonds within native lignin, and further by formation of such linkages during lignin extraction. We report that adding formaldehyde during biomass pretreatment produces a soluble lignin fraction that can be converted to guaiacyl and syringyl monomers at near theoretical yields during subsequent hydrogenolysis (47 mole % of Klason lignin for beech and 78 mole % for a high-syringyl transgenic poplar). These yields were three to seven times those obtained without formaldehyde, which prevented lignin condensation by forming 1,3-dioxane structures with lignin side-chain hydroxyl groups. By depolymerizing cellulose, hemicelluloses, and lignin separately, monomer yields were between 76 and 90 mole % for these three major biomass fractions.

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