Environmental Technologies for Contaminated Solids, Soils and Sediments
5th cohort

Gabriele Mancini

Different approaches to enhance the biogas production from the anaerobic digestion of lignocellulosic materials

Biogas production via anaerobic digestion (AD) is a long-standing renewable technology and a continuously growing bioprocess worldwide. Lignocellulosic materials (LMs) present several features that make them especially attractive among the organic substrates commonly employed in anaerobic bioreactors. In particular, LMs under the form of agricultural residues have been acknowledged as the most suitable feedstock for biomethane production due to their high availability, low cost, sustainability and no direct competition with food and feed production. However, their recalcitrance to biological conversion hinders their application for full-scale production of biogas and requires a pretreatment step to improve the LM microbial degradability. In addition to the challenges posed by the lignocellulosic structure, the supply of trace elements (TEs) has often been found insufficient within biogas digesters. The microbial growth depends on the availability and optimal amount of several specific TEs, which are essential constituents of cofactors in enzyme systems involved in the biochemistry of methane formation.
Different chemical pretreatments, namely the solvent N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide (NMMO), the organosolv process, and an alkaline pretreatment using NaOH, were investigated during several batch experiments to enhance the biogas production yields from different LMs (i.e. rice straw, hazelnut skin, cocoa bean shell and wheat straw). Changes in the cellulose crystallinity, water retention value and chemical composition were assessed to better evaluate the effect of the different pretreatments studied on the lignocellulosic structure. Furthermore, the addition of different doses of Fe, Co, Ni and Se on the AD of rice straw was studied, evaluating the influence of the inoculum origin, as well as the performance and synergistic effect of combining an alkaline pretreatment with the addition of trace elements prior to the AD of rice straw. The bioavailability of TEs during batch biochemical methane potential tests was also evaluated applying a sequential extraction technique.
The three pretreatments investigated were effective methods for enhancing the biomethane production from the employed LMs. The biomethane yield from the AD of rice straw increased by 82 and 41% after the NMMO and organosolv pretreatment, respectively. When compared within the same experiment, the NMMO, organosolv and NaOH pretreatment were able to improve the AD of wheat straw, differently affecting the chemical composition of the raw LM. The cumulative biomethane production yield of 274 mL CH4/g VS obtained with the untreated wheat straw was enhanced by 11% by the NMMO pretreatment and by 15% by both the organosolv and alkaline pretreatment. Hazelnut skin and cocoa bean shell, which were never investigated before as AD substrates, showed a good potential for biogas production, with cumulative biomethane yields of 223-261 and 199-231 mL CH4/g VS, respectively, for the untreated feedstocks. However, both NMMO and organosolv pretreatments did not lead to a significant enhancement of the biomethane production yields from these two LMs. The TE supplementation had only a minor effect compared to the pretreatment methods. The addition of Fe, Co, Ni and Se did not result in a significant improvement of the AD of rice straw, whereas the use of the NaOH pretreatment, during the same batch experiment, caused a considerable enhancement of the AD, increasing the biogas production yield by 21%. The negligible effect observed after TE supplementation on the AD of rice straw could be linked to its complex lignocellulosic structure, which requires an enhancement of the hydrolysis, which, rather than the methanogenesis, is the rate-limiting step.