Microwave-assisted synthesis of levulinic acid from low-cost, sustainable feedstocks using organic acids as green catalysts

Paul Topham, Kinana Aliko, Amin Osatiashtiani, Khalid Doudin, Jiawei Wang, Eirini Theodosiou*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Modern day scientific endeavour strives towards global sustainability through the smart utilisation of renewable resources as base materials for chemicals. Until now, the most common commercial process to produce levulinic acid (a mass-produced platform chemical) depends on a two-stage mineral acid-catalysed reaction, which generates harmful environmental waste. In this work, an environmentally friendly levulinic acid production route using less harmful organic acids assisted by microwave heating from biomass feedstocks is reported for the first time. RESULTS: Using aluminum sulfate as a green Lewis acid catalyst and seven organic acids, levulinic acid was successfully produced from barley straw under microwave heating, with maleic acid giving the highest catalytic conversion. A Response Surface Methodology (RSM) approach was used to rapidly and effectively examine the effect of five reaction variables on the productivity of the levulinic acid. A wide range of different biomass wastes (barley straw, brewery waste, olive cake, spent tea leaves and potato, tomato, and mandarin peels) were subsequently screened to produce the levulinic acid. The highest yield of 86 wt% based on cellulose content from mandarin peel (a value comparable to a lengthier ‘non-green’ route) was achieved under the following optimized reaction conditions: 180 °C, 38 min, 2 M maleic acid concentration, 0.1 g Al 2(SO 4) 3 and 1:22 biomass: maleic acid ratio (g mL −1). CONCLUSIONS: The proposed method is a promising new route towards the green, high yield production of levulinic acid from a variety of agricultural and household lignocellulosic biomass wastes, without the need for pre-treatment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2110-2119
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology
Issue number8
Early online date18 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2020

Bibliographical note



  • biomass conversion
  • cellulose hydrolysis
  • green catalysts
  • levulinic acid production
  • lignocellulosic feedstocks
  • microwave heating


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