Common processes drive the thermochemical pretreatment of lignocellulosic biomass
Lignocellulosic biomass, a potentially important renewable organic source of energy and chemical feedstock, resists degradation to glucose in industrial hydrolysis processes and thus requires expensive thermochemical pretreatments. Understanding the mechanism of biomass breakdown during these pretreatments will lead to more efficient use of biomass. By combining multiple probes of structure, sensitive to different length scales, with molecular dynamics simulations, we reveal two fundamental processes responsible for the morphological changes in biomass during steam explosion pretreatment: cellulose dehydration and lignin-hemicellulose phase separation. We further show that the basic driving forces are the same in other leading thermochemical pretreatments, such as dilute acid pretreatment and ammonia fiber expansion.