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Comparison of ethanol production from corn cobs and switchgrass following a pyrolysis-based biorefinery approach

Luque, Luis, Oudenhoven, Stijn, Westerhof, Roel, van Rossum, Guus, Berruti, Franco, Kersten, Sascha, Rehmann, Lars
Biotechnology for biofuels 2016 v.9 no.1 pp. 242
Panicum virgatum, acid hydrolysis, aromatic compounds, ash content, biofuels, biomass, biorefining, byproducts, cellulose, corn, corn cobs, distillers grains, energy crops, ethanol, ethanol production, feedstocks, fermentation, fractionation, fuel production, glucose, hemicellulose, high performance liquid chromatography, lignin, lignocellulose, nitric acid, pyrolysis, solvents, streams, Ontario
BACKGROUND: One of the main obstacles in lignocellulosic ethanol production is the necessity of pretreatment and fractionation of the biomass feedstocks to produce sufficiently pure fermentable carbohydrates. In addition, the by-products (hemicellulose and lignin fraction) are of low value, when compared to dried distillers grains (DDG), the main by-product of corn ethanol. Fast pyrolysis is an alternative thermal conversion technology for processing biomass. It has recently been optimized to produce a stream rich in levoglucosan, a fermentable glucose precursor for biofuel production. Additional product streams might be of value to the petrochemical industry. However, biomass heterogeneity is known to impact the composition of pyrolytic product streams, as a complex mixture of aromatic compounds is recovered with the sugars, interfering with subsequent fermentation. The present study investigates the feasibility of fast pyrolysis to produce fermentable pyrolytic glucose from two abundant lignocellulosic biomass sources in Ontario, switchgrass (potential energy crop) and corn cobs (by-product of corn industry). RESULTS: Demineralization of biomass removes catalytic centers and increases the levoglucosan yield during pyrolysis. The ash content of biomass was significantly decreased by 82–90% in corn cobs when demineralized with acetic or nitric acid, respectively. In switchgrass, a reduction of only 50% for both acids could be achieved. Conversely, levoglucosan production increased 9- and 14-fold in corn cobs when rinsed with acetic and nitric acid, respectively, and increased 11-fold in switchgrass regardless of the acid used. After pyrolysis, different configurations for upgrading the pyrolytic sugars were assessed and the presence of potentially inhibitory compounds was approximated at each step as double integral of the UV spectrum signal of an HPLC assay. The results showed that water extraction followed by acid hydrolysis and solvent extraction was the best upgrading strategy. Ethanol yields achieved based on initial cellulose fraction were 27.8% in switchgrass and 27.0% in corn cobs. CONCLUSIONS: This study demonstrates that ethanol production from switchgrass and corn cobs is possible following a combined thermochemical and fermentative biorefinery approach, with ethanol yields comparable to results in conventional pretreatments and fermentation processes. The feedstock-independent fermentation ability can easily be assessed with a simple assay.