Gaseous ammonia pretreatment lowers the required energy input for fine milling-enhanced enzymatic saccharification of switchgrass

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Background: Fine milling of dry lignocellulosic biomass, without prior chemical pretreatment, can produce a high percent theoretical yield of sugars during subsequent enzymatic saccharification. However, the high sugar yields, necessary for a commercial biofuels process, are costly, with the milling energy input, necessary to achieve such yields even exceeding the energy content of the biomass. In this study, we show that low moisture gaseous ammonia pretreatment of switchgrass, in advance of the milling step, significantly reduces the milling energy required to give high sugar titers.
Results: We have found that the increase in monomeric sugar yields upon enzymatic saccharification of ball-milled, but not chemically treated switchgrass, is more closely tied to the formation of crystallites of cellulose with a negative linear dependence on the coherent domain size than to a decrease in particle size or to an increase in surface area of the biomass. The milling energy required to reach ~80 % of theoretical yield of glucose under these conditions is intolerably high, however, approximating two times the energy content of the biomass. Two different low moisture content ammonia pretreatments, prior to milling, significantly reduce the required milling energy (four to eightfold, depending on the pretreatment). These involve either heating the biomass at 150–160 °C for 1 h at 10 wt% gaseous ammonia or incubating at room temperature for 9 days at 20 wt% gaseous ammonia, the latter mimicking potential treatment during biomass storage. We have tested this combination of pretreatment and milling on switchgrass using a variety of milling methods, but mostly using ball and attritor milling. In the case of the high-temperature gaseous ammonia treatment followed by attritor milling, the increase in the monomeric sugar yield upon saccharification shows a negative linear dependence on the second or third power of the cellulose crystalline coherent domain size, implying that the surfaces, as well as the ends of the cellulose fibrils, are accessible to cellulolytic enzymes.
Conclusions: The combination of knife milling, low moisture gaseous ammonia pretreatment followed by attritor milling that costs only ~5 % of the energy content of the biomass for a total energy input of ~11 % of the biomass energy content, is capable of delivering high sugar titers upon enzymatic saccharification. These results show, therefore, how to better integrate a mechanochemical step into the pretreatment of switchgrass in a commercial biomass to biofuels conversion process.
Keywords: Lignocellulosic biomass, Pretreatment, Ball milling, Attritor milling, Gaseous ammonia, Switchgrass.
Published in Biotechnol Biofuels (2015) 8:139 DOI 10.1186/s13068-015-0315-y.
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