Alkaline pretreatment of herbaceous feedstocks such as corn stover prior to mechanical refining and enzymatic saccharification improves downstream sugar yields by removing acetyl moieties from hemicellulose. However, the relationship between transport phenomena and deacetylation kinetics is virtually unknown for such feedstocks and this pretreatment process. Here, we report the development of an experimentally validated reaction–diffusion model for the deacetylation of corn stover. A tissue-specific transport model is used to estimate transport-independent kinetic rate constants for the reactive extraction of acetate, hemicellulose and lignin from corn stover under representative alkaline conditions (5–7 g L−1 NaOH, 10 wt% solids loadings) and at low to mild temperatures (4–70°C) selected to attenuate individual component extraction rates under differential kinetic regimes. The underlying transport model is based on microstructural characteristics of corn stover derived from statistically meaningful geometric particle and pore measurements. These physical descriptors are incorporated into distinct particle models of the three major anatomical fractions (cobs, husks and stalks) alongside an unsorted, aggregate corn stover particle, capturing average Feret lengths of 917–1239 μm and length-to-width aspect ratios of 1.8–2.9 for this highly heterogeneous feedstock. Individual reaction–diffusion models and their resulting particle model ensembles are used to validate and predict anatomically-specific and bulk feedstock performance under kinetic-controlled vs. diffusion-controlled regimes. In general, deacetylation kinetics and mass transfer processes are predicted to compete on similar time and length scales, emphasizing the significance of intraparticle transport phenomena. Critically, we predict that typical corn stover particles as small as ∼2.3 mm in length are entirely diffusion-limited for acetate extraction, with experimental effectiveness factors calculated to be 0.50 for such processes. Debilitatingly low effectiveness factors of 0.021–0.054 are uncovered for cobs—implying that intraparticle mass transfer resistances may impair observable kinetic measurements of this anatomical fraction by up to 98%. These first-reported quantitative maps of reaction vs. diffusion control link fundamental insights into corn stover anatomy, biopolymer composition, practical size reduction thresholds and their kinetic consequences. These results offer a guidepost for industrial deacetylation reactor design, scale-up and feedstock selection, further establishing deacetylation as a viable biorefinery pretreatment for the conversion of lignocellulosics into value-added fuels and chemicals.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number841169
Number of pages15
JournalFrontiers in Energy Research
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2022 Thornburg, Ness, Crowley, Bu, Pecha, Usseglio-Viretta, Bharadwaj, Li, Chen, Sievers, Wolfrum, Resch and Ciesielski.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-5400-81575


  • biomass pretreatment
  • biomass reaction kinetics
  • computational fluid dynamics
  • corn stover
  • deacetylation
  • transport phenomena


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