Biochemical Conversion of Wastes

Advanced waste-to-energy technologies can be used to produce biogas (methane and carbon dioxide), syngas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide), liquid biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), or pure hydrogen. The most famous (and most important) biochemical conversion technologies are anaerobic digestion and alcohol fermentation. Anaerobic digestion is a series of chemical reactions during which organic material is decomposed through the metabolic pathways of naturally occurring microorganisms in an oxygen depleted environment. Alcohol fermentation is the transformation of organic fraction of biomass to ethanol by a series of biochemical reactions using specialized microorganisms. It finds good deal of application in the transformation of woody biomass into cellulosic ethanol.

Anaerobic Digestion

Anaerobic digestion is the natural biological process which stabilizes organic waste in the absence of air and transforms it into biofertilizer and biogas. Anaerobic digestion is a reliable technology for the treatment of wet, organic waste.  Organic waste from various sources is biochemically degraded in highly controlled, oxygen-free conditions circumstances resulting in the production of biogas which can be used to produce both electricity and heat. Almost any organic material can be processed with anaerobic digestion. This includes biodegradable waste materials such as municipal solid waste, animal manure, poultry litter, food wastes, sewage and industrial wastes.

An anaerobic digestion plant produces two outputs, biogas and digestate, both can be further processed or utilized to produce secondary outputs. Biogas can be used for producing electricity and heat, as a natural gas substitute and also a transportation fuel. A combined heat and power plant system (CHP) not only generates power but also produces heat for in-house requirements to maintain desired temperature level in the digester during cold season. In Sweden, the compressed biogas is used as a transportation fuel for cars and buses. Biogas can also be upgraded and used in gas supply networks.

Digestate can be further processed to produce liquor and a fibrous material. The fiber, which can be processed into compost, is a bulky material with low levels of nutrients and can be used as a soil conditioner or a low level fertilizer. A high proportion of the nutrients remain in the liquor, which can be used as a liquid fertilizer.

Biofuels Production

A variety of fuels can be produced from waste resources including liquid fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch diesel, and gaseous fuels, such as hydrogen and methane. The resource base for biofuel production is composed of a wide variety of forestry and agricultural resources, industrial processing residues, and municipal solid and urban wood residues. Globally, biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles, heat homes, and for cooking.

The largest potential feedstock for ethanol is lignocellulosic biomass wastes, which includes materials such as agricultural residues (corn stover, crop straws and bagasse), herbaceous crops (alfalfa, switchgrass), short rotation woody crops, forestry residues, waste paper and other wastes (municipal and industrial). Bioethanol production from these feedstocks could be an attractive alternative for disposal of these residues. Importantly, lignocellulosic feedstocks do not interfere with food security.

Ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass is produced mainly via biochemical routes. The three major steps involved are pretreatment, enzymatic hydrolysis, and fermentation. Biomass is pretreated to improve the accessibility of enzymes. After pretreatment, biomass undergoes enzymatic hydrolysis for conversion of polysaccharides into monomer sugars, such as glucose and xylose. Subsequently, sugars are fermented to ethanol by the use of different microorganisms.

Ethanol Production via Biochemical Route

Ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass is produced mainly via biochemical routes. The three major steps involved are pretreatment, enzymatic hydrolysis, and fermentation as shown in Figure. Biomass is pretreated to improve the accessibility of enzymes. After pretreatment, biomass undergoes enzymatic hydrolysis for conversion of polysaccharides into monomer sugars, such as glucose and xylose. Subsequently, sugars are fermented to ethanol by the use of different microorganisms.

Pretreated biomass can directly be converted to ethanol by using the process called simultaneous saccharification and cofermentation (SSCF). Pretreatment is a critical step which enhances the enzymatic hydrolysis of biomass. Basically, it alters the physical and chemical properties of biomass and improves the enzyme access and effectiveness which may also lead to a change in crystallinity and degree of polymerization of cellulose. The internal surface area and pore volume of pretreated biomass are increased which facilitates substantial improvement in accessibility of enzymes. The process also helps in enhancing the rate and yield of monomeric sugars during enzymatic hydrolysis steps.

Pretreatment methods can be broadly classified into four groups – physical, chemical, physio-chemical and biological. Physical pretreatment processes employ the mechanical comminution or irradiation processes to change only the physical characteristics of biomass. The physio-chemical process utilizes steam or steam and gases, like SO2 and CO2. The chemical processes employs acids (H2SO4, HCl, organic acids etc) or alkalis (NaOH, Na2CO3, Ca(OH)2, NH3 etc). The acid treatment typically shows the selectivity towards hydrolyzing the hemicelluloses components, whereas alkalis have better selectivity for the lignin. The fractionation of biomass components after such processes help in improving the enzymes accessibility which is also important to the efficient utilization of enzymes.

The pretreated biomass is subjected to enzymatic hydrolysis using cellulase enzymes to convert the cellulose to fermentable sugars. Cellulase refers to a class of enzymes produced chiefly by fungi and bacteria which catalyzes the hydrolysis of cellulose by attacking the glycosidic linkages. Cellulase is mixture of mainly three different functional protein groups: exo-glucanase (Exo-G), endo-glucanase(Endo-G) and β-glucosidase (β-G). The functional proteins work synergistically in hydrolyzing the cellulose into the glucose. These sugars are further fermented using microorganism and are converted to ethanol. The microorganisms are selected based on their efficiency for ethanol productivity and higher product and inhibitors tolerance. Yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is used commercially to produce the ethanol from starch and sucrose.

Escherichia coli strain has also been developed recently for ethanol production by the first successful application of metabolic engineering. E. coli can consume variety of sugars and does not require the complex growth media but has very narrow operable range of pH. E. coli has higher optimal temperature than other known strains of bacteria.

The major cost components in bioethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass are the pretreatment and the enzymatic hydrolysis steps. In fact, these two process are someway interrelated too where an efficient pretreatment strategy can save substantial enzyme consumption. Pretreatment step can also affect the cost of other operations such as size reduction prior to pretreatment. Therefore, optimization of these two important steps, which collectively contributes about 70% of the total processing cost, are the major challenges in the commercialization of bioethanol from 2nd generation feedstock.

Enzyme cost is the prime concern in full scale commercialization. The trend in enzyme cost is encouraging because of enormous research focus in this area and the cost is expected to go downward in future, which will make bioethanol an attractive option considering the benefits derived its lower greenhouse gas emissions and the empowerment of rural economy.

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