The natural resistance to enzymatic deconstruction exhibited by lignocellulosic materials has designated pretreatment as a key step in the biological conversion of biomass to ethanol. Hydrothermal pretreatment in pure water represents a challenging approach because it is a method with low operational costs and does not involve the use of organic solvents, difficult to handle chemicals, and “external” liquid or solid catalysts. In the present work, a systematic study has been performed to optimize the hydrothermal treatment of lignocellulosic biomass (beech wood) with the aim of maximizing the enzymatic digestibility of cellulose in the treated solids and obtaining a liquid side product that could also be utilized for the production of ethanol or valuable chemicals. Hydrothermal treatment experiments were conducted in a batch-mode, high-pressure reactor under autogeneous pressure at varying temperature (130–220 °C) and time (15–180 min) regimes, and at a liquid-to-solid ratio (LSR) of 15. The intensification of the process was expressed by the severity factor, log Ro. The major changes induced in the solid biomass were the dissolution/removal of hemicellulose to the process liquid and the partial removal and relocation of lignin on the external surface of biomass particles in the form of recondensed droplets. The above structural changes led to a 2.5-fold increase in surface area and total pore volume of the pretreated biomass solids. The enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulose to glucose increased from less than 7 wt % for the parent biomass to as high as 70 wt % for the treated solids. Maximum xylan recovery (60 wt %) in the hydrothermal process liquid was observed at about 80 wt % hemicellulose removal; this was accomplished by moderate treatment severities (log Ro=3.8–4.1). At higher severities (log Ro=4.7), xylose degradation products, mainly furfural and formic acid, were the predominant chemicals formed.
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