Biopolymer Structure Analysis and Saccharification of Glycerol Thermal Processed Biomass


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Virginia Tech


Glycerol thermal processing (GTP) is studied as a novel biomass pretreatment method in this research with the purposes to facilitate biopolymer fractionation and biomass saccharification. This approach is performed by treating sweet gum particles on polymer processing equipment at high temperatures and short times in the presence of anhydrous glycerol. Nine severity conditions are studied to assess the impact of time and temperature during the processing on biopolymer structure and conversion.

The GTP pretreatment results in the disruption of cell wall networks by increasing the removal of side-chain sugars and lignin-carbohydrate linkages based on severity conditions. After pretreatment, 41% of the lignin and 68% of the xylan is recovered in a dry powdered form by subsequent extractions without additional catalysts, leaving a relatively pure cellulose fraction, 84% glucan, as found in chemical pulps.

Lignin structural analysis indicated GTP processing resulted in extensive degradation of B-aryl ether bonds through the C-y elimination, followed by abundant phenolic hydroxyl liberation. At the same time, condensation occurred in the GTP lignin, providing relatively high molecular weight, near to that of the enzymatic mild acidolysis lignin. Better thermal stability was observed for this GTP lignin. In addition to lignin, xylan was successfully isolated as another polymer stream after GTP pretreatment. The recovered water insoluble xylan (WIX) was predominant alkali soluble fraction with a maximum purity of 84% and comparable molecular weight to xylan isolated from non-pretreated fibers. Additionally, the narrow molecular weight distribution of recovered WIX, was arisen from the pre-extraction of low molecular weight water-soluble xylan.

Additionally, a 20-fold increase of the ultimate enzymatic saccharification for GTP pretreated biomass was observed even with significant amounts of lignin and xylan remaining on the non-extracted fiber. The shear and heat processing caused a disintegrated cell wall structure with formation of biomass debris and release of cellulose fibrils, enhancing surface area and most likely porosity. These structural changes were responsible for the improved biomass digestibility. Additionally, no significant inhibitory compounds for saccharification are produced during GTP processing, even at high temperatures. While lignin extraction did not promote improvement in hydrolysis rates, further xylan extraction greatly increases the initial enzymatic hydrolysis rate and final level of saccharification.

The serial of studies fully demonstrate glycerol thermal processing as a novel pretreatment method to enhance biomass saccharification for biofuel production, as well as facilitate biopolymer fractionation. Moreover, the study shows the impact of thermally introduced structural changes to wood biopolymers when heated in anhydrous environments in the presence of hydrogen bonding solvent.



glycerol thermal processing, lignin, xylan, biomass saccharification, structural analysis