Transforming biomass conversion with ionic liquids: process intensification and the development of a high-gravity, one-pot process for the production of cellulosic ethanol
Producing concentrated sugars and minimizing water usage are key elements in the economics and environmental sustainability of advanced biofuels. Conventional pretreatment processes that require a water-wash step can result in losses of fermentable sugars and generate large volumes of wastewater or solid waste. To address these problems, we have developed high gravity biomass processing with a one-pot conversion technology that includes ionic liquid pretreatment, enzymatic saccharification, and yeast fermentation for the production of concentrated fermentable sugars and high-titer cellulosic ethanol. The use of dilute bio-derived ionic liquids (a.k.a. bionic liquids) enables one-pot, high-gravity bioethanol production due to their low toxicity to the hydrolytic enzyme mixtures and microbes used. We increased biomass digestibility at >30 wt% by understanding the relationship between ionic liquid and biomass loading, yielding 41.1 g L-1 of ethanol (equivalent to an overall yield of 74.8% on a glucose basis) using an integrated one-pot fed-batch system. Our technoeconomic analysis indicates that the optimized one-pot configuration provides significant economic and environmental benefits for cellulosic biorefineries by reducing the amount of ionic liquid required by ~90% and pretreatment-related water inputs and wastewater generation by ~85%. In turn, these improvements can reduce net electricity use, greenhouse gas-intensive chemical inputs for wastewater treatment, and waste generation. The result is an overall 40% reduction in the cost of cellulosic ethanol produced and a reduction in local burdens on water resources and waste management infrastructure.