Ammonia Pretreatment of Corn Stover Enables Facile Lignin Extraction

Ashutosh Mittal, Rui Katahira, Bryon Donohoe, Michelle Nolker, Gregg Beckham, Sivakumar Pattathil, Sindhu Kandemkavil, Mary Biddy

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73 Scopus Citations


Thermochemical pretreatment of lignocellulose is often employed to render polysaccharides more digestible by carbohydrate-active enzymes to maximize sugar yields. The fate of lignin during pretreatment, however, is highly dependent on the chemistry employed and must be considered in cases where lignin valorization is targeted alongside sugar conversion - an important feature of future biorefinery development. Here, a two-step process is demonstrated in which anhydrous ammonia (AA) pretreatment is followed by mild NaOH extraction on corn stover to solubilize and fractionate lignin. As known, AA pretreatment simultaneously alters the structure of cellulose with enhanced digestibility while redistributing lignin. The AA-pretreated residue is then extracted with dilute NaOH at mild conditions to maximize lignin separation, resulting in a digestible carbohydrate-rich solid fraction and a solubilized lignin stream. Lignin removal of more than 65% with over 84% carbohydrate retention is achieved after mild NaOH extraction of AA-pretreated corn stover with 0.1 M NaOH at 25 °C. Two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance (2D-NMR) spectroscopy of the AA-pretreated residue shows that ammonolysis of ester bonds occurs to partially liberate hydroxycinnamic acids, and the AA-pretreated/NaOH-extracted residue exhibits a global reduction of all lignin moieties caused by reduced lignin content. A significant reduction (∼70%) in the weight-average molecular weight (Mw) of extracted lignin is also achieved. Imaging of AA-pretreated/NaOH extracted residues show extensive delamination and disappearance of coalesced lignin globules from within the secondary cell walls. Glycome profiling analyses demonstrates ultrastructural level cell wall modifications induced by AA pretreatment and NaOH extraction, resulting in enhanced extractability of hemicellulosic glycans, indicating enhanced polysaccharide accessibility. The glucose and xylose yields from enzymatic hydrolysis of AA-pretreated/NaOH-extracted corn stover were higher by ∼80% and ∼60%, respectively, compared to untreated corn stover at 1% solids loadings. For digestions at 20% solids, a benefit of NaOH extraction is realized in achieving ∼150 g/L of total monomeric sugars (glucose, xylose, and arabinose) in the enzymatic hydrolysates from AA-pretreated/NaOH-extracted corn stover. Overall, this process enables facile lignin extraction in tandem with a leading thermochemical pretreatment approach, demonstrating excellent retention of highly digestible polysaccharides in the solid phase and a highly depolymerized, soluble lignin-rich stream.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)2544-2561
Number of pages18
JournalACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering
Issue number3
StatePublished - 6 Mar 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 American Chemical Society.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-68056


  • Ammonia
  • Biofuels
  • Fractionation
  • Ligninocellulose
  • Pretreatment


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