Natural Science, 2009, 1, 41-46 NS
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
A Study of thermal decomposition in cellulose by
molecular dynamics simulation
Chao Liu1, De-Zheng Jiang1, Shun-An Wei2, Jin-Bao Huang1
1College of Power Engineering, Chongqing University, Chongqing 400044, China; 2College of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering,
Chongqing University, Chongqing 400044, China.
Received 19 May 2009; revised 5 June 2009; accepted 7 June 2009.
PM3 method was used in this paper to optimize
cellulose molecular structure which is the main
component of biomass and a series of struc-
tural parameter was attained. The single chain
of cellulose (the degree of polymerization is 9)
was simulated in different force fields by mo-
lecular dynamic method. Energy history, depo-
sition temperature and the cracked groups of
simulation process in different force fields was
gotten, of which Amber force field is quite
matched to the experiments data. By simulating
the process of cellulose thermal decomposition
with MD which is based on Amber force field
and quantum mechanics, we get the sequence
of bond break of cellulose molecule and the first
cracked group. Also, the first production was
analyzed. The heating process includes two
stages: vibrate at low temperature and break
at high temperature (273k-375k) and breaking
stage when the temperature of the system ar-
rived at 375K.
Keywords: Molecular Dynamics Simulation; Cel-
lulose; Thermal Decomposition; Bond Breaks
The special meeting, green energy: the cooperation of
government and enterprise, of Boao Asian Forum
pointed out that the miraculous development of Asia will
not continue if no appropriate measures were taken to
make sure energy safety, decrease energy consuming,
find new energy and to release environment stress.
However, all the problems probably can be solved by
biomass energy, which has become one of the most
popular and important topics in the word.
Biomass consists of cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin
and a small amount of ash content. Cellulose, which is
D-glucose high molecular polymer formed by connec-
tion between
(1-4)-glycosidic bond, is the main
component of biomass, accounting for 40%-96% of the
total amount of biomass. Many researches on relation
between raw material and production of biomass energy
were done by scholars form all over the world, using
thermal decomposition, liquefaction, gasification [2,3,4,
5]. However, the work on the process is rare. In order to
investigate the further principle of biomass energy’s
thermal deposition process, a reactive molecular dynam-
ics model was developed to simulation the thermal
deposition of cellulose in this paper.
Molecular structures were optimized before molecular
dynamic simulation to lower the molecule energy to the
possibly lowest degree. The lower the energy is, the
steadier the structure is and the higher probability exists
in the system is. Single point calculation was applied for
optimizing energy; Optimized structure was searched by
calculating a series of bond length and bond angle.
Single molecular was employed in this MD simula-
tion, which differs form other poly-molecular systems.
The lowest point of partial total potential energy was
gotten when searching the lowest total potential energy,
but the global optimization was needed. MD method
must be used when optimal three dimensional struc-
tures were set. Molecules are heated up and the struc-
ture extends and relaxes adequately at high tempera-
ture. Then we cool down the molecules and calculate
the optimum structure. Optimal three dimensional
structures can be obtained. The conformations were
much different between single molecule and multiple
molecules which are more accordant with practical
situation. Single molecule was researched in this paper
considering huge system, complex structure and the
operation ability of computes.
The semi-empirical method MNDO-PM3 based on
MNDO model was used in this paper and Polak-Ribiere
conjugate gradient was applied in optimization with
RMS setted as 0.042kJ/mol. The results of cellulose
molecular optimization were listed in Table 1.
42 C. Liu et al. / Natural Science 1 (2009) 41-46
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
2.1. Simulation Model
The molecular formula of cellulose is (C6H10O5)n,
where n is polymerization degree. Haworth structure is
used to express the cellulose molecule in the simulation
[6]. The structure model is given in Fig. 1.
The simulated object is single chain of cellulose with
polymerization degree is 9. The original size is 6.9727
) after optimizing. The
size of the simulation cell is 15(
Periodic boundary condition was applied. During the
simulation, the temperature was heated up from the
293K at the begging to 1273K which is simulation tem-
perature. The heating time is 100ps; the simulation time
is 10ps; the step size is 0.001ps. The parameters of en-
ergy and temperature were collected every time step.
Table 1. The parameters of cellulose molecule before and after optimizing.
Groups Before Optimizing After Optimizing Parameters
Groups Before Optimizing After Optimizing
C1H1 1.09A 1.1073A O2H 0.96A 0.9617A
C1H2 1.09A 1.10458A C3C4C5 108.247° 110.169°
H1C1H2 109.47° 108.014° C4O2H 109.471° 108.112°
C1O1 1.43A 1.40063A HC4O2H -159.4365° -159.246°
O1H1 0.96 A 0.96587A C3C4C5O2 -119.811° -127.222°
C1C2 1.54A 1.55006A C3C4HC5 119.8° 120.336°
HO1C1 109.471° 107.203° C5H 1.09A 1.11574A
HC1HO1 -120° -116.391° C5O3 1.43A 1.40229A
C2H 1.09A 1.11871A O3H 0.96A 0.95074A
C2O4 1.4326A 1.42258A C5C6 1.54012A 1.55571A
C2C3 1.54A 1.54324A C4C5C6 108.867° 112.894°
C3C2H 109.325° 109.75° C5O3H 109.471° 107.744°
C3C2O4 110.057° 115.958° C4C6C5H -120.01° -119.849°
HC3C2O4 120.044° 111.173° C4C6C5O3 119.99° 128.836°
HC3C2C1 119.857° 121.745° C6H 1.09A 1.12113A
C3H 1.09A 1.1336A C6O5 1.43A 1.41851A
C3C4 1.53748A 1.5499A C6O4 1.43285A 1.39737A
HC3C2 109.62° 109.505° C5C6O4 110.052° 116.06°
C2C3C4 108.875° 113.707° C5C6O5 109.339° 113.56°
HC3C4 109.62° 109.879° C5C6O5H 119.728° 127.655°
C4HC2C3 38.1592° 34.3572 C5C6O4O5 120.104° 123.063°
C4O2 1.43A 1.40198A C5C6HO5 119.743° 127.236°
C4H 1.09A 1.12203A C6O4C2 119.743° 120.239°
C4C5 1.53753A 1.54967A
Figure 1. The model of cellulose molecule (n=9).
C. Liu et al. / Natural Science 1 (2009) 41-46 43
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
2.2. Assumptions in Simulation
1) The broken groups have no influence on subsequent
bond break.
2) The broken groups didn’t get together and form
new molecules.
3) The broken groups didn’t decompose secondarily.
Force field, with relation to reliability of the result, is the
base of molecular dynamic simulation. The force fields
become more and more complex as computing systems
swell. It has different forms with its advantages and lim-
its in each form. Some force fields can be chosen when
the organic molecule was simulated, such as MM+,
AMBER, CHARMM, OPLS [7,8,9,10].
3.1. Force Fields for Simulation
The total potential energy expression of the macromole-
cule is partitioned into several energy terms as given in
Eq.1. These contributions include non-bonding energies
(Unb), bond stretching energies (Ub), angle bending en-
ergies, (U
), torsion angle energies U
, out-of-plant
bending energies (
U), columbic interaction energies
nb bel
 (1)
AMBER (Assisted Model Building and Energy Re-
finement) force field which was developed by Peter A
Kollman and coworkers in University of California San
Francisco was widely used for proteins and DNA. Force
field functions and parameter sets are derived from both
experimental work and high-level quantum mechanical
calculations. The first three terms in Eq.2 denote the
internal coordinates of bond stretching, angle bending
and torsions. The non-bonded terms account for the Van
DerWaals and electrostatic interactions and the last term
represent the 12-6 Lennard-Jones hydrogen bond treat-
()( )[1cos()]
UKbb KVn
 
12612 10
[( )2( )]()
ij ijij ij
ij ij
rrrrCrD r
CHARMM (Chemistry at Harvard Macromolecular
Mechanics) force field was developed by Harvard, the
parameter of which come form not only the result of
experiment and computing, but also calculation result of
quantum. It was used for many molecular systems, in-
cluding organic micro molecule, solution, polymer, bio-
chemical molecule. The form of the potential energy
function we will use is given by the following equation
()( )[||cos()]
Ukrr kkkn
 
22 2
012 6
()( )(,,)
i jijij
ijon off
ij ij
ij ij ij
qqA B
 
 
where 22 2
(, ,)
ijon off
wr rr is switching function.
MM+ force field was developed by Allinger. El, some
common atoms are divided different forms, which have
different parameters. It was applied in organic com-
pounds, free radical, ions. The normal form is given:
nb belcross
 
where 6
()( )
Ur aebr
 
()(1 cos)
()(1 cos2)
Ux kx
 
 
 
()()[1()() ()]
 
U is cross action term which is given by follow-
ing EQ while the bond lengths are 1
r and 2
r for the
same molecule.
1 211,022,0
(, )()()
Urrr rrr
OPLS force field formed by OPLS-UA model and
OPLS-AA model was used for simulating organic
molecules and multi-peptide. The parameters of bond
extension and bend were attained form AMBER force
field. OPLS force field is mainly used for computing the
conformation energy of gaseous organic molecule, hy-
dration free energy of organic liquid, and other thermo-
dynamics features.
[1 cos()][1 cos(2)]
Ukrr kV
 
 
[1 cos(3)]()
i jijijijijij
qq erArCr
 
3.2. The Energy History
During the heating process (100pst0ps), the total
energy increases as temperature rises. But in the simula-
tion process (t100ps), the temperature is constant and
the total energy is steady. Form Fig. 2, as can be seen,
the total energy lowered to minimum in a short time at
the beginning of simulation. The energy was adjusted
44 C. Liu et al. / Natural Science 1 (2009) 41-46
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
after the system was optimized and before simulating,
the range of which was EoEcEmEa. Table 2.
shows the energy adjustment range of OPLS is largest
and the total energy is EchEamEmmEop.
3.3. Comparison of Different Force Fields
The straight chain starts to bend from both sides to
the middle as the energy of each atom in the chain of
cellulose rises; atoms move and vibrate more and
more strongly. The groups in the cellulose begin to
break when the total energy of system come to the
special value. The breaking temperature is TOTC
TATM as show in Table 3. Cellulose breaks
more and more strongly as the temperature rises
while only a few groups break at the beginning. The
temperature of main decomposition process is shown
in Table 2, from which the conclusion can be drawn:
AMBER force field quite agrees with the experiment
value [11].
4.1. The Energy History in Heating Process
The system was heated at the initial temperature of 273K.
Fig. 3 shows the whole temperature history during the
heating-up process. The temperature gradually rises
during heating process with bigger fluctuation at higher
temperature. The total energy history is shown in shown
Figure 2. The energy histories of simulation process.
in Fig. 4, form which the rise of total energy as time
going can be seen.
4.2. Breaking of Molecular Chain
Not considering bond bonding, the heating process
includes two stages: vibrate at low temperature and
break at high temperature. During low temperature
(273k-375k), the length of bond grows, bond angles
bend, torsion angles increase. Stretching energies (Ub),
angle bending energies (Uθ), torsion angle energies(UΦ)
and out-of-plant bending energies (Uχ) increase, but
the bond was not broken due to non-bonding energies
(Unb) and columbic interaction energies (Uel). As seen
in Fig. 5, atoms vibrate more and more strongly and
Table 2. Different Force Fields Parameters.
AmberCharmmMM+ Opls Experiment
Initial Energy (kJ/mol) 2644.3 3606.6 1924.6 4418.3
Adjusted Energy (kJ/mol) 2502 3117.1 2288.6 1912.1
Energy difference (kJ/mol) -142.3 -489.5 364 -2506.2
Balanced Energy (kJ/mol) 7564.7 7836.6 7455.9 6757.2
Temperature of starting decomposition (K)380 390 310 417 400
Main Temperature Ranges of
Decomposition (K) 420~750450~860310~710600~950 480~700
Figure 3. The temperature history of system. Figure 4. The energy history of system.
C. Liu et al. / Natural Science 1 (2009) 41-46 45
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
the straight chain starts to bend from both sides to the
middle. When the temperature of the system arrived at
375K, it comes to breaking stage. The groups move
stronger with the increasing of temperature, some of
which overcome the electronic force and van der waals
force and leave from the long chain. Then, chemical
bonds break and cellulose starts to decompose (Fig. 6).
When the length of chemical bond is larger than 1.2
times of its original length, we think that it is broken
or disappears.
Many groups are formed when cellulose begins to
break and many of short chain groups can be obtained in
low temperature process, such as: (-OH), (-CO-), (-CHOH-
CHOH-), (-CHOH-CH2-CH2-), (-CH2OH), (-CH3),
(-CH2-CH2-), (-CH2-CH2-CHOH-), (-CH=CH-CHOH-),
(-CH=CH-), (-CHOH-CHOH-CH3), (-CH2-CH2-CH2- CH2-),
(-CHOH-CH2-CH(C)-CHOH-), (-CHOH-CH2-CH2-). A
number of unsteady (OH) groups which are prone to re-
lease free groups [O] exist in the system after breaking.
()()[]OHOHH OO  (6)
A lot of free groups [O] accelerate the oxidation reac-
tion. Bottom (-OH) is oxidated to corresponding alde-
hyde and acids. For example:
323 2
(-OH) in the middle also can be oxidated to ketone or be
alkene off-(-OH),
() ()
322 22
CO CO (11)
33 33
 (12)
CHCH OH (14)
The re-combination of these broken groups form the
first production such as: CO2, H2O(L), CH4, alkanes
such as:CH3-CH3, olefin such as CH2=CH2, aldehydes
such as CH2O. With the further increasing of tempera-
ture, organic biological oil with more than 6 carbons
formed with highest production rate at around
800K-850K, which is quite matched with the experi-
ments [11].
4.3. The Order of Molecule Breaking
The order of cellulose bonds breaking are obtained when
the broken groups are shielded after the cellulose break-
ing. Fig. 7 shows the planar structure of carbon and oxy-
gen, and the hydrogen is not shown because the breaking
of (O-H) and (C-H) is not involved. The numbers show
the orders and the letters show the units number of cel-
In one unite of cellulose, the hydroxyl groups (-OH)
in the ring shed first, then the hydroxyl (-OH) in
branched chain and the ring. Sometimes the whole ring
breaks directly, unit I, for example. The (C-O) which has
the lowest energy in the chain of cellulose breaks first
because decomposition always occurs from the lowest
As for the whole chain of cellulose molecule, the
molecule chain decomposes from both sides to the middle
gradually. The hydroxyl (-OH) of inside unit will break
earlier than the ring of two-terminals. Separate adjustment
is reasonable because the order given in this paper is not
steady for the randomness of chemical reaction. In spite of
thus bugs, the general tendency is correct.
Figure 5. The process of heating. Figure 6. The process of decomposition.
46 C. Liu et al. / Natural Science 1 (2009) 41-46
Copyright © 2009 SciRes. OPEN ACCESS
Figure 7. The breaking order of cellulose single chain.
1) Series of parameters of cellulose structure were ob-
tained by optimizing the cellulose chain.
2) AMBER force field is more adaptive for simulating
cellulose with lower polymerization degree than others.
3) Details of cellulose thermal decomposition and the
ranges of decomposition temperature are gotten from the
simulation. The order of cellulose unit breaking is ob-
tained. Therefore, the detailed process of cellulose ther-
mal decomposition is shown.
4) The heating process includes two stages: vibrate at
low temperature and break at high temperature (273k-
375k) and breaking stage when the temperature of the
system arrived at 375K.
5) The re-combination of these broken groups which
were gotten from thermal decomposition forms the first
production which was the most important product.
The conclusions concluded from the simulation of cel-
lulose thermal decomposition by molecular dynamic
model matches the experiment quite well, convincing
molecular dynamics could be a very significant tool for
science research. The results of the simulation are very
significative for the following researches.
The Project is sponsored by the National Natural Science Foundation
of China (No. 50776101)
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