Biomass Process Engineering

Cellulosic biomass (like switchgrass and poplar) is an abundant renewable resource with an estimated 56 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide fixed by terrestrial plants into ~200 billion tonnes of plant biomass each year worldwide (1). Humans utilize currently only 2% of this plant biomass each year. Therefore, there is significant potential to sustainably utilize waste plant biomass to produce fuels, chemicals and materials. Plant biomass (i.e., cell walls) is composed mostly of insoluble glycan (~60-70%) and phenolic (~15-30%) polymers. However, biomass is 'recalcitrant' towards extraction/conversion to soluble sugars and phenolic intermediates that can eventually be upgraded into fuels or chemicals (2).

In our group, we focus on overcoming biomass recalcitrance via the biochemical conversion platform. The biochemical conversion platform encompasses a low-severity thermochemical pretreatment step (to breakdown cell walls and increase glycan accessibility) followed by an enzymatic saccharification step (to hydrolyze glycan polymers into soluble sugars). We are interested in the design and optimization of chemical pretreatments (3-5) and biochemical conversion (6) processes for cellulosic biorefineries. We are also collaborating with researchers at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center to develop novel, low-cost ammonia based pretreatments (5). With the on-going commercialization of biochemical conversion platform based cellulosic biorefineries, there are several open-challenges and opportunities in this field (7-8). We are currently funded by Rutgers GAIA and ORAU on this project.


  1. Pauly M, Keegstra K: Cell Wall Carbohydrates and their Modifications as a Resource for Biofuels. Plant J 2008, 54:559–568.
  2. Chundawat SPS, Beckham GT, Himmel M, Dale BE: Deconstruction of Lignocellulosic Biomass to Fuels and Chemicals. Annu Rev Chem Biomol Eng 2011, 2:121–145.
  3. Chundawat SPS, Bals B, Campbell T, Sousa L, Gao D, Jin M, Eranki P, Garlock R, Teymouri F, Balan V, Dale BE: Primer on Ammonia Fiber Expansion Pretreatment. In Aqueous Pretreat Plant Biomass Biol Chem Convers to Fuels Chem. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2013:169–200.
  4. Chundawat SPS, Donohoe BS, Sousa L, Elder T, Agarwal UP, Lu F, Ralph J, Himmel ME, Balan V, Dale BE: Multi-scale visualization and characterization of plant cell wall deconstruction during thermochemical pretreatment. Energy Environ Sci 2011, 4:973–984.
  5. Sousa L, Jin M, Chundawat SPS, Bokade V, Tang X, Azarpira A, Lu F, Avci U, Humpula J, Uppugundla N, Gunawan C, Pattathil S, Cheh AM, Kothari N, Kumar R, Ralph J, Hahn MG, Wyman CE, Singh S, Simmons BA, Dale BE, Balan V: Next-generation ammonia pretreatment enhances cellulosic biofuel production. Energy Environ Sci, 2016, 9, 1215–1223.
  6. Lau MW, Bals B, Chundawat SPS, Jin M, Gunawan C, Balan V, Jones AD, Dale BE: An integrated paradigm for cellulosic biorefineries: Utilization of lignocellulosic biomass as self-sufficient feedstocks for fuel, food precursors and saccharolytic enzyme production. Energy Environ Sci 2012, 5:7100–7110.
  7. Poet-DSM commercial-scale cellulosic biorefinery comes online in Emmetsburg, Iowa.
  8. DuPont Cellulosic Biofuels

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