Process Description. The basic processes for converting sugar and starch crops are well-known and used commercially today. While these types of plants generally have a greater value as food sources than as fuel sources there are some exceptions to this. For example, Brazil uses its huge crops of sugar cane to produce fuel for its transportation needs. The current U.S. fuel ethanol industry is based primarily on the starch in the kernels of feed corn, America's largest agricultural crop.
- Biomass Handling. Biomass goes through a size-reduction step to make it easier to handle and to make the ethanol production process more efficient. For example, agricultural residues go through a grinding process and wood goes through a chipping process to achieve a uniform particle size.
- Biomass Pretreatment. In this step, the hemicellulose fraction of the biomass is broken down into simple sugars. A chemical reaction called hydrolysis occurs when dilute sulfuric acid is mixed with the biomass feedstock. In this hydrolysis reaction, the complex chains of sugars that make up the hemicellulose are broken, releasing simple sugars. The complex hemicellulose sugars are converted to a mix of soluble five-carbon sugars, xylose and arabinose, and soluble six-carbon sugars, mannose and galactose. A small portion of the cellulose is also converted to glucose in this step.
- Cellulose Hydrolysis. In this step, the remaining cellulose is hydrolyzed to glucose. In this enzymatic hydrolysis reaction, cellulase enzymes are used to break the chains of sugars that make up the cellulose, releasing glucose. Cellulose hydrolysis is also called cellulose saccharification because it produces sugars.
- Enzyme Production. The cellulase enzymes that are used to hydrolyze the cellulose fraction of the biomass are grown in this step. Alternatively the enzymes might be purchased from commercial enzyme companies.
- Glucose Fermentation. The glucose is converted to ethanol, through a process called fermentation. Fermentation is a series of chemical reactions that convert sugars to ethanol. The fermentation reaction is caused by yeast or bacteria, which feed on the sugars. As the sugars are consumed, ethanol and carbon dioxide are produced.
- Pentose Fermentation. The hemicellulose fraction of biomass is rich in five-carbon sugars, which are also called pentoses. Xylose is the most prevalent pentose released by the hemicellulose hydrolysis reaction. In this step, xylose is fermented using Zymomonasmobilis or other genetically engineered bacteria.
- Ethanol Recovery. The fermentation product from the glucose and pentose fermentation is called ethanol broth. In this step the ethanol is separated from the other components in the broth. A final dehydration step removes any remaining water from the ethanol.
- Lignin Utilization. Lignin and other byproducts of the biomass-to-ethanol process can be used to produce the electricity required for the ethanol production process. Burning lignin actually creates more energy than needed and selling electricity may help the process economics.
Converting cellulosic biomass to ethanol is currently too expensive to be used on a commercial scale. So researchers are working to improve the efficiency and economics of the ethanol production process by focusing their efforts on the two most challenging steps:
- Cellulose hydrolysis. The crystalline structure of cellulose makes it difficult to hydrolyze to simple sugars, ready for fermentation. Researchers are developing enzymes that work together to efficiently break down cellulose. Read more about Enzymatic Hydrolysis.
- Pentose fermentation. While there are a variety of yeast and bacteria that will ferment six-carbon sugars, most cannot easily ferment five-carbon sugars, which limits ethanol production from cellulosic biomass. Researchers are using genetic engineering to design microorganisms that can efficiently ferment both five- and six-carbon sugars to ethanol at the same time.
Key Reactions. Two reactions are key to understanding how biomass is converted to bioethanol:
- Hydrolysis is the chemical reaction that converts the complex polysaccharides in the raw feedstock to simple sugars. In the biomass-to-bioethanol process, acids and enzymes are used to catalyze this reaction.
- Fermentation is a series of chemical reactions that convert sugars to ethanol. The fermentation reaction is caused by yeast or bacteria, which feed on the sugars. Ethanol and carbon dioxide are produced as the sugar is consumed. The simplified fermentation reaction equation for the 6-carbon sugar, glucose, is: