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New advance in biofuel production: Researchers develop enzyme-free ionic liquid pre-treatment

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Posted May 10, 2013
Joint BioEnergy Institute researchers have developed an enzyme-free ionic liquid pretreatment of cellulosic biomass that makes it easier to recover fermentable sugars for biofuels and to recycle the ionic liquid. Credit: Blake Simmons/JBEI

Joint BioEnergy Institute researchers have developed an enzyme-free ionic liquid pretreatment of cellulosic biomass that makes it easier to recover fermentable sugars for biofuels and to recycle the ionic liquid. Credit: Blake Simmons/JBEI

Advanced biofuels – liquid fuels synthesized from the sugars in cellulosic biomass – offer a clean, green and renewable alternative to gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. Bringing the costs of producing these advanced biofuels down to competitive levels with petrofuels, however, is a major challenge. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a bioenergy research center led by Berkeley Lab, have taken another step towards meeting this challenge with the development of a new technique for pre-treating cellulosic biomass with ionic liquids – salts that are liquids rather than crystals at room temperature. This new technique requires none of the expensive enzymes used in previous ionic liquid pretreatments, and makes it easier to recover fuel sugars and recycle the ionic liquid.

“Most of our ionic liquid efforts at JBEI have focused on using enzymes to liberate fermentable sugars from lignocellulosic biomass after pretreatment, but with this new enzyme-free approach we use an acid as the catalyst for hydrolyzing biomass polysaccharides into a solution containing fermentable sugars,” says Blake Simmons, a chemical engineer who heads JBEI’s Deconstruction Division and was the leader of this research. “We’re then able to separate the pretreatment solution into two phases, a sugar-rich water phase for recovery and a lignin-rich ionic liquid phase for recycling. As an added bonus, our new pretreatment technique uses a lot less water than previous pretreatments.”

Simmons is the corresponding author of a paper describing this research that has been published in the journal Biotechnology for Biofuels. The paper is titled “Production and extraction of sugars from switchgrass hydrolyzed in ionic liquids.” Co-authoring it were Ning Sun, Hanbin Liu Noppadon Sathitsuksanoh, Vitalie Stavila, Manali Sawant, Anaise Bonito, Kim Tran, Anthe George, Kenneth Sale, Seema Singh and Bradley Holmes.

With the burning of fossil fuels continuing to add 9 billion metric tons of excess carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, the need for carbon neutral, cost-competitive renewable alternative fuels has never been greater. Advanced biofuels, produced from the microbial fermentation of sugars in lignocellulosic biomass, could displace gasoline, diesel and jet fuel on a gallon-for-gallon basis and be directly dropped into today’s engines and infrastructures without impacting performance. If done correctly, the use of advanced biofuels would not add excess carbon to the atmosphere.

Read more at: Phys.org

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