A new method of extracting sugars from biomass could lead to more sustainable, inexpensive biofuel production. Unlike more expensive techniques that focus on enzymes, this method, developed at Iowa State University, relies on pyrolysis of lignocelluslosic biomass: quickly heating the biomass without oxygen to produce liquid or gas products.

The researchers highlight thermochemical technologies, including processes that: increase the yield of sugar from fast pyrolysis of biomass with a pretreatment; prevent burning of sugar released during pyrolysis by rapidly transporting it out of the hot reaction zone; recover sugar from the heavy end of bio-oil that has been separated into various fractions; and separate sugars from the heavy fractions of bio-oil using a simple water-washing process.

“The Department of Energy has been working for 35 years to get sugar out of biomass,” said Robert C. Brown, a distinguished professor of engineering at Iowa State University. “Most of the focus has been on use of enzymes, which remains extremely expensive. What we’ve developed is a simpler method based on the heating of biomass.”

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Related: Another research effort focuses on performing genetic analysis on a promising bacterium that is known to convert biomass to sugars.