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.