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Accelerated electrons unlock sugars from cellulosic biomass

By Scott Jenkins |

Obtaining sugars from cellulosic biomass cost-effectively is difficult because the predominant biopolymers in plant material evolved to protect these sugars. A process currently being scaled up for obtaining sugars from waste agricultural biomass employs beams of accelerated electrons to fracture chains of cellulose and hemicellulose, allowing dramatically improved enzymatic hydrolysis in subsequent process steps. Xyleco, Inc. (Wakefield, Mass.; www.xyleco.com) is building a commercial-scale demonstration plant in Moses Lake, Wash. to make several end products at 10 times the volume of its initial pilot plant. The process consists of three major steps. First, waste agricultural biomass, such as corn cobs, corn stover, sugarcane bagasse and others, are milled to a particular particle-size range, depending on the feedstock used. Next, the biomass is passed below a beam of accelerated electrons, which collide with the atoms of the biomass, causing electrons to be ejected from the plant material (diagram). “The collisions, and subsequent ejection of electrons leave the material in an ionized state,” explains Craig Masterman, Xyleco’s chief technology officer. “This charged state is unstable, so the long chains that make up…
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