Plant cell walls are composed predominantly of cellulose, a range of non-cellulosic polysaccharides and lignin. The walls account for a large proportion not only of crop residues such as wheat straw and sugarcane bagasse, but also of residues of the timber industry and specialist grasses and other plants being grown specifically for biofuel production. The polysaccharide components of plant cell walls have long been recognized as an extraordinarily large source of fermentable sugars that might be used for the production of bioethanol and other renewable liquid transport fuels. Estimates place annual plant cellulose production from captured light energy in the order of hundreds of billions of tons. Lignin is synthesized in the same order of magnitude and, as a very large polymer of phenylpropanoid residues, lignin is also an abundant, high energy macromolecule. However, one of the major functions of these cell wall constituents in plants is to provide the extreme tensile and compressive strengths that enable plants to resist the forces of gravity and a broad range of other mechanical forces. Over millions of years these wall constituents have evolved under natural selection to generate extremely tough and resilient biomaterials. The rapid degradation of these tough cell wall composites to fermentable sugars is therefore a difficult task and has significantly slowed the development of a viable lignocellulose-based biofuels industry. However, good progress has been made in overcoming this so-called recalcitrance of lignocellulosic feedstocks for the biofuels industry, through modifications to the lignocellulose itself, innovative pre-treatments of the biomass, improved enzymes and the development of superior yeasts and other microorganisms for the fermentation process. Nevertheless, it has been argued that bioethanol might not be the best or only biofuel that can be generated from lignocellulosic biomass sources and that hydrocarbons with intrinsically higher energy densities might be produced using emerging and continuous flow systems that are capable of converting a broad range of plant and other biomasses to bio-oils through so-called ‘agnostic’ technologies such as hydrothermal liquefaction. Continued attention to regulatory frameworks and ongoing government support will be required for the next phase of development of internationally viable biofuels industries.
- Hydrothermal liquefaction
- Lignocellulosic biomass