Overcoming Cellulose Recalcitrance in Woody Biomass for the Lignin-First Biorefinery

Bryon Donohoe, Haibing Yang, Ximing Zhang, Hao Luo, Baoyuan Liu, Tania Shiga, Xu Li, Jeong Kim, Peter Rubinelli, Jonathan Overton, Varun Subramanyam, Bruce Cooper, Huaping Mo, Mahdi Abu-Omar, Clint Chapple, Lee Makowski, Nathan Mosier, Maureen McCann, Nicholas Carpita, Richard Meilan

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41 Scopus Citations


Background: Low-temperature swelling of cotton linter cellulose and subsequent gelatinization in trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) greatly enhance rates of enzymatic digestion or maleic acid-AlCl3 catalyzed conversion to hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) and levulinic acid (LA). However, lignin inhibits low-temperature swelling of TFA-treated intact wood particles from hybrid poplar (Populus tremula × P. alba) and results in greatly reduced yields of glucose or catalytic conversion compared to lignin-free cellulose. Previous studies have established that wood particles from transgenic lines of hybrid poplar with high syringyl (S) lignin content give greater glucose yields following enzymatic digestion. Results: Low-temperature (- 20 °C) treatment of S-lignin-rich poplar wood particles in TFA slightly increased yields of glucose from enzymatic digestions and HMF and LA from maleic acid-AlCl3 catalysis. Subsequent gelatinization at 55 °C resulted in over 80% digestion of cellulose in only 3 to 6 h with high-S-lignin wood, compared to 20-60% digestion in the wild-type poplar hybrid and transgenic lines high in guaiacyl lignin or 5-hydroxy-G lignin. Disassembly of lignin in woody particles by Ni/C catalytic systems improved yields of glucose by enzymatic digestion or catalytic conversion to HMF and LA. Although lignin was completely removed by Ni/C-catalyzed delignification (CDL) treatment, recalcitrance to enzymatic digestion of cellulose from the high-S lines was reduced compared to other lignin variants. However, cellulose still exhibited considerable recalcitrance to complete enzymatic digestion or catalytic conversion after complete delignification. Low-temperature swelling of the CDL-treated wood particles in TFA resulted in nearly complete enzymatic hydrolysis, regardless of original lignin composition. Conclusions: Genetic modification of lignin composition can enhance the portfolio of aromatic products obtained from lignocellulosic biomass while promoting disassembly into biofuel and bioproduct substrates. CDL enhances rates of enzymatic digestion and chemical conversion, but cellulose remains intrinsically recalcitrant. Cold TFA is sufficient to overcome this recalcitrance after CDL treatment. Our results inform a 'no carbon left behind' strategy to convert total woody biomass into lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose value streams for the future biorefinery.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number171
Number of pages18
JournalBiotechnology for Biofuels
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 The Author(s).

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-74364


  • Catalysis
  • Cellulose
  • Delignification
  • Lignin
  • Poplar
  • Recalcitrance


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