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Analytical method for the determination of organic acids in dilute acid pretreated biomass hydrolysate by liquid chromatography-time-of-flight mass spectrometry

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For the development of lignocellulosic biofuels a common strategy to release hemicellulosic sugars and enhance the enzymatic digestibility of cellulose is the heat pretreatment of biomass with dilute acid. During this process, fermentation inhibitors such as 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, furfural, phenolics, and organic acids are formed and released into the so-called hydrolysate. The phenolic inhibitors have been studied fairly extensively, but fewer studies have focused on the analysis of the organic acids profile. For this purpose, a simple and fast liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry (LC/MS) method for the analysis of organic acids in the hydrolysate has been developed using an ion exchange column based on a polystyrene-divinylbenzene polymer frequently used in biofuel research. The application of the LC/MS method to a hydrolysate from Miscanthus has been evaluated.


The presented LC/MS method involving only simple sample preparation (filtration and dilution) and external calibration for the analysis of 24 organic acids present in dilute acid pretreated biomass hydrolysate is fast (12 min) and reasonably sensitive despite the small injection volume of 2 μL used. The lower limit of quantification ranged from 0.2 μg/mL to 2.9 μg/mL and the limit of detection from 0.03 μg/mL to 0.7 μg/mL. Analyte recoveries obtained from a spiked hydrolysate were in the range of 70 to 130% of the theoretical yield, except for glyoxylic acid, malic acid, and malonic acid, which showed a higher response due to signal enhancement. Relative standard deviations for the organic acids ranged from 0.4 to 9.2% (average 3.6%) for the intra-day experiment and from 2.1 to 22.8% (average 8.9%) for the inter-day (three-day) experiment.


We have shown that the analysis of the profile of 24 organic acids present in biomass hydrolysate can be achieved by a simple LC/MS method applying external calibration and minimal sample preparation. The organic acids eluted within only 12 min by isocratic elution, enabling high sample throughput. Repeatability (precision and accuracy) and recovery were sufficiently accurate for most of the organic acids tested, making the method suitable for their fast determination in hydrolysate. We envision that this method can be further expanded to a larger number of organic acids, including phenolic acids such as p-coumaric acid and ferulic acid and other molecules depending on the researchers’ needs.

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