Nonenzymatic Sugar Production from Biomass Using Biomass-Derived γ-Valerolactone

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Science  17 Jan 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6168, pp. 277-280
DOI: 10.1126/science.1246748

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Renewable Breakdown Routine

In order to transform cellulose-containing biomass into liquid fuels such as ethanol, it is first necessary to break down the cellulose into its constituent sugars. Efforts toward this end have focused on chemical protocols using concentrated acid or ionic liquid solvents, and on biochemical protocols using cellulase enzymes. Luterbacher et al. (p. 277) now show that γ-valerolactone, a small molecule solvent that can itself be sourced renewably from biomass, promotes efficient and selective thermal breakdown of cellulose in the presence of dilute aqueous acid.


Widespread production of biomass-derived fuels and chemicals will require cost-effective processes for breaking down cellulose and hemicellulose into their constituent sugars. Here, we report laboratory-scale production of soluble carbohydrates from corn stover, hardwood, and softwood at high yields (70 to 90%) in a solvent mixture of biomass-derived γ-valerolactone (GVL), water, and dilute acid (0.05 weight percent H2SO4). GVL promotes thermocatalytic saccharification through complete solubilization of the biomass, including the lignin fraction. The carbohydrates can be recovered and concentrated (up to 127 grams per liter) by extraction from GVL into an aqueous phase by addition of NaCl or liquid CO2. This strategy is well suited for catalytic upgrading to furans or fermentative upgrading to ethanol at high titers and near theoretical yield. We estimate through preliminary techno-economic modeling that the overall process could be cost-competitive for ethanol production, with biomass pretreatment followed by enzymatic hydrolysis.

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