Scientists develop 'green' pretreatment of Miscanthus for biofuels

May 15, 2013

Two University of Illinois scientists have developed an environmentally friendly and more economical way of pretreating Miscanthus in the biofuel production process.

"We pretreat the biomass with switchable butadiene sulfone in the presence of water to break down the plant cell wall, which consists of cellulose, , and lignin, the source of biofuels and value-added products," said Hao Feng, a U of I professor of food science and human nutrition who also has extensive research experience with biofuels.

The new technique is a green alternative to current industry practices because butadiene sulfone can be recovered at potentially high yields since the solvent's decomposition gases are also the raw materials for its production. This means that butadiene sulfone can be re-used after pretreatment, he added.

The commercial availability for both production and recovery of this chemical should allow for a transfer of these operations into a , Feng said.

"It's a big advantage in terms of both economy and environmental impact," he added.

The current process uses relatively to break down the tough structure of grass and other biomass. Enzymes are then used to release the sugars that are converted to fuels through a , Feng explained.

"These chemicals not only produce compounds that are toxic to fermenting microorganisms, they often result in by-products that have negative environmental impact," he said.

Why is this new solvent so important? "Pretreatment is the most expensive step in the production of biofuels and chemicals from lignocellulosic biomass," said J. Atilio de Frias, co-author of the study and a doctoral student in the Feng laboratory.

According to de Frias, butadiene sulfone has the unique ability to "switch" in equilibrium to 1,3-butadiene and sulfur dioxide at relatively low temperatures, forming sulfurous acid in the presence of water.

Using this relatively inexpensive and recoverable chemical to pretreat biomass in one step under mild conditions is definitely a step in the right direction, he said.

"At temperatures ranging from 90ºC to 110ºC, the sulfurous acid hydrolyzes hemicellulose. Then butadiene sulfone helps to solubilize lignin with most of the cellulose preserved for downstream enzymatic hydrolysis," he explained.

The scientists said their data shows promise for the separation of hemicellulose and lignin and for the preservation of cellulose. They were able to remove up to 58 percent of lignin and 91 percent of hemicellulose and preserved 90 to 99 percent of cellulose.

Feng said that this is the first time that this solvent has been successfully used as a pretreatment in biofuel production.

"We look forward to its testing and adoption by manufacturers that are working with Miscanthus and other crops," he said.

Explore further: Study identifies highly efficient new Cas9 for in vivo genome editing

More information: "Switchable butadiene sulfone pretreatment of Miscanthus in the presence of water," co-authored by J. Atilio de Frias and Hao Feng, was published in Green Chemistry (2013, 15, 1067-1078).

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Longer DNA fragments reveal rare species diversity

10 hours ago

A challenge in metagenomics is that the more commonly used sequencing machines generate data in short lengths, while short-read assemblers may not be able to distinguish among multiple occurrences of the ...

Simplifying SNP discovery in the cotton genome

13 hours ago

The term "single-nucleotide polymorphism" (SNP) refers to a single base change in DNA sequence between two individuals. SNPs are the most common type of genetic variation in plant and animal genomes and are, thus, an important ...

Japanese company 'makes tear-free onions'

Mar 31, 2015

The sobbing of a chef as he chops onions in the kitchen could be a thing of the past thanks to one Japanese company which says it has produced a tear-free vegetable.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.