Biomass is a desirable renewable energy source because fermentable sugars within the cellulose network of plant cells can be extracted with enzymes and then converted into ethanol. Unfortunately, it’s a very complicated process, and one of the big difficulties in creating biofuels from plant matter is that cellulose tends to naturally orient itself into a sheet-like network of highly ordered, densely packed molecules.

These sheets stack upon themselves and bond together very tightly due to strong interactions between molecules — somewhat like sheets of chicken wire stacked together and secured by loops of bailing wire.

This stacking and bonding arrangement prevents enzymes from directly attacking most of the individual cellulose molecules and isolating the sugar chains within them.

During pre-treatment, researchers removed water and increased the ratio of ammonia. The result was seeing the so-called bailing wire being replaced with loose thread, which made it vulnerable to conversion into sugars.

The end result is a potentially less costly and less energy intensive pre-treatment regimen that makes the cellulose five times easier to attack.

While increasing the rate of enzyme success improves biomass conversion, this research also opens the door for future improvement of cellulose-degrading enzymes.

Chundawat and Dale worked with researchers from the GLBRC and the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The GLBRC is one of three Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers funded to make transformational breakthroughs that will form the foundation of new cellulosic biofuels technology.

The GLBRC is led by the University of Wisconsin, with MSU as the major partner. Additional scientific partners are DOE National Laboratories, other universities and a biotechnology company.

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LANL is a multi-disciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security. For more information, visit