New Tools for Understanding the Breakdown of Lignocellulosic Biomass

The Science

Biomass is resistant to enzymatic breakdown into sugars needed for fermentation into renewable biofuels, requiring extensive pretreatment to make the biomass more amenable to bio-processing. Understanding this degradation process will enable design of more efficient approaches for converting plant material into biofuels. DOE research at the Universities of Notre Dame and of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has used confocal Raman imaging and mass spectrometry imaging to monitor structural and chemical changes in the of pretreatment of Miscanthus x giganteus, a potential energy crop. Raman images of samples treated with sodium hydroxide shows that lignin is completely removed at long processing time while the cellulose is largely undisturbed. Lignin is also removed preferentially from the interior surface of the cell wall. These results illustrate how even simple pretreatments can lead to spatially complex biological profiles due to differential rates of attack on the major components of the cell wall. The researchers also showed that laser desorption/ionization mass spectrometry and secondary ion mass spectrometry can be used to visualize and understand pretreatment induced chemical changes that affect the spatial distribution of several saccharides.


Chu, L., R. Masyuko, J. V. Sweedler, and P. W. Bohn. 2010. “Base-Induced Delignification of Miscanthus x Giganteus Studied by Three-Dimensional Confocal Raman Imaging,” Bioresource Technology 101(13), 4919-4925. DOI:10.1016/j.biortech.2009.10.096.

Li, Z., P. W. Bohn, and J. V. Sweedler. 2010. “Comparison of Sample Pre-Treatments for Laser Desorption Ionization and Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry Imaging of Miscanthus x giganteus,” Bioresource Technology
101(14), 5578–5585. DOI:10.1016/j.biortech.2010.01.136.