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Open Access Research

Ethanol and biogas production after steam pretreatment of corn stover with or without the addition of sulphuric acid

Pia-Maria Bondesson*, Mats Galbe and Guido Zacchi

Author Affiliations

Department of Chemical Engineering, Lund University, P.O. Box 124, SE-221 00, Lund, Sweden

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Biotechnology for Biofuels 2013, 6:11  doi:10.1186/1754-6834-6-11

Published: 28 January 2013



Lignocellulosic biomass, such as corn stover, is a potential raw material for ethanol production. One step in the process of producing ethanol from lignocellulose is enzymatic hydrolysis, which produces fermentable sugars from carbohydrates present in the corn stover in the form of cellulose and hemicellulose. A pretreatment step is crucial to achieve efficient conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to soluble sugars, and later ethanol. This study has investigated steam pretreatment of corn stover, with and without sulphuric acid as catalyst, and examined the effect of residence time (5–10 min) and temperature (190–210°C) on glucose and xylose recovery. The pretreatment conditions with and without dilute acid that gave the highest glucose yield were then used in subsequent experiments. Materials pretreated at the optimal conditions were subjected to simultaneous saccharification and fermentation (SSF) to produce ethanol, and remaining organic compounds were used to produce biogas by anaerobic digestion (AD).


The highest glucose yield achieved was 86%, obtained after pretreatment at 210°C for 10 minutes in the absence of catalyst, followed by enzymatic hydrolysis. The highest yield using sulphuric acid, 78%, was achieved using pretreatment at 200°C for 10 minutes. These two pretreatment conditions were investigated using two different process configurations. The highest ethanol and methane yields were obtained from the material pretreated in the presence of sulphuric acid. The slurry in this case was split into a solid fraction and a liquid fraction, where the solid fraction was used to produce ethanol and the liquid fraction to produce biogas. The total energy recovery in this case was 86% of the enthalpy of combustion energy in corn stover.


The highest yield, comprising ethanol, methane and solids, was achieved using pretreatment in the presence of sulphuric acid followed by a process configuration in which the slurry from the pretreatment was divided into a solid fraction and a liquid fraction. The solid fraction was subjected to SSF, while the liquid fraction, together with the filtered residual from SSF, was used in AD. Using sulphuric acid in AD did not inhibit the reaction, which may be due to the low concentration of sulphuric acid used. In contrast, a pretreatment step without sulphuric acid resulted not only in higher concentrations of inhibitors, which affected the ethanol yield, but also in lower methane production.

Corn stover; Steam pretreatment; Ethanol; Methane; Sulphuric acid