Fast microwave-assisted acidolysis, a new biorefinery approach for a zero-waste utilisation of lignocellulosic biomass to produce high quality lignin and fermentable saccharides
.Generally biorefineries convert lignocellulosic biomass into a range of biofuels and further value added chemicals. However, conventional biorefinery processes focus mainly on the cellulose and hemicellulose fractions and therefore produce only low quality lignin, which is commonly burnt to provide process heat. To make full use of the biomass, more attention needs to be focussed on novel separation techniques, where the lignin can be isolated in a high quality suitable for further valorisation into aromatic chemicals and fuel components. In this paper, three types of lignocellulosic biomass (softwood, hardwood and herbaceous biomass) were processed by microwave-assisted acidolysis, to produce high quality lignin. The lignin from the softwood was isolated largely intact in the solid residue after acidolysis. For example, a 10 min treatment, microwave-assisted acidolysis produced a lignin with a purity of 93% and yield of 82%, superior to other conventional separation methods reported. Furthermore, the py-GC/MS analysis proved that the isolated lignin retained the original structure as native lignin in the feedstock without severe chemical modification. This is a large advantage, and the purified lignin is suitable for further chemical processing. To assess the suitability of this methodology as part of a biorefinery system, the aqueous phase, produced after acidolysis of the softwood, was characterised and assessed for its suitability for fermentation. The broth contained some mono- and disaccharides but mainly organic acids, oligosaccharides and furans. While this is unsuitable for S. cerevisiae and other common ethanol producing yeasts, two oleaginous yeasts with known inhibitor tolerances were selected; Cryptococcus curvatus and Metschnikowia pulcherrima. Both yeasts could grow on the broth, demonstrating suitable catabolism of the oligosaccharides and inhibitors over 7 days. In addition, both yeasts were shown to be able to produce an oil with a similar composition to palm oil. This preliminary work demonstrates new protocols of microwave-assisted acidolysis and therefore offers an effective approach to produce high purity lignin and fermentable chemicals, a key step towards a zero-waste lignocellulosic biorefinery.