Biofuels from Lignocellulosic Biomass

Lignocellulose is a generic term for describing the main constituents in most plants, namely cellulose, hemicelluloses, and lignin. Lignocellulose is a complex matrix, comprising many different polysaccharides, phenolic polymers and proteins. Cellulose, the major component of cell walls of land plants, is a glucan polysaccharide containing large reservoirs of energy that provide real potential for conversion into biofuels. Lignocellulosic biomass consists of a variety of materials with distinctive physical and chemical characteristics. It is the non-starch based fibrous part of plant material.

First-generation biofuels (produced primarily from food crops such as grains, sugar beet and oil seeds) are limited in their ability to achieve targets for oil-product substitution, climate change mitigation, and economic growth. Their sustainable production is under scanner, as is the possibility of creating undue competition for land and water used for food and fibre production.

The cumulative impacts of these concerns have increased the interest in developing biofuels produced from non-food biomass. Feedstocks from ligno-cellulosic materials include cereal straw, bagasse, forest residues, and purpose-grown energy crops such as vegetative grasses and short rotation forests. These second-generation biofuels could avoid many of the concerns facing first-generation biofuels and potentially offer greater cost reduction potential in the longer term.

The largest potential feedstock for biofuels is lignocellulosic biomass, which includes materials such as agricultural residues (corn stover, crop straws and bagasse), herbaceous crops (alfalfa, switchgrass), short rotation woody crops, forestry residues, waste paper and other wastes (municipal and industrial). Bioethanol production from these feedstocks could be an attractive alternative for disposal of these residues. Importantlylignocellulosic feedstocks do not interfere with food security. Moreover, bioethanol is very important for both rural and urban areas in terms of energy security reason, environmental concern, employment opportunities, agricultural development, foreign exchange saving, socioeconomic issues etc.

Lignocellulosic biomass consists mainly of lignin and the polysaccharides cellulose and hemicellulose. Compared with the production of ethanol from first-generation feedstocks, the use of lignocellulosic biomass is more complicated because the polysaccharides are more stable and the pentose sugars are not readily fermentable by Saccharomyces cerevisiae. 

In order to convert lignocellulosic biomass to biofuels the polysaccharides must first be hydrolysed, or broken down, into simple sugars using either acid or enzymes. Several biotechnology-based approaches are being used to overcome such problems, including the development of strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that can ferment pentose sugars, the use of alternative yeast species that naturally ferment pentose sugars, and the engineering of enzymes that are able to break down cellulose and hemicellulose into simple sugars.

Lignocellulosic processing pilot plants have been established in the EU, in Denmark, Spain and Sweden. The world’s largest demonstration facility of lignocellulose ethanol (from wheat, barley straw and corn stover), with a capacity of 2.5 Ml, was first established by Iogen Corporation in Ottawa, Canada. Many other processing facilities are now in operation or planning throughout the world.

Economically, lignocellulosic biomass has an advantage over other agriculturally important biofuels feedstocks such as corn starch, soybeans, and sugar cane, because it can be produced quickly and at significantly lower cost than food crops. Lignocellulosic biomass is an important component of the major food crops; it is the non-edible portion of the plant, which is currently underutilized, but could be used for biofuel production. In short, lignocellulosic biomass holds the key to supplying society’s basic needs for sustainable production of liquid transportation fuels without impacting the nation’s food supply.

About Salman Zafar

Salman Zafar is the CEO of BioEnergy Consult, and an international consultant, advisor and trainer with expertise in waste management, biomass energy, waste-to-energy, environment protection and resource conservation. His geographical areas of focus include Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Salman has successfully accomplished a wide range of projects in the areas of biogas technology, biomass energy, waste-to-energy, recycling and waste management. Salman has participated in numerous national and international conferences all over the world. He is a prolific environmental journalist, and has authored more than 300 articles in reputed journals, magazines and websites. In addition, he is proactively engaged in creating mass awareness on renewable energy, waste management and environmental sustainability through his blogs and portals. Salman can be reached at or
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31 Responses to Biofuels from Lignocellulosic Biomass

  1. Ron Kirchner says:

    Thank you Salman for this straight forward and clear article about next generation biofuels. Biofuels of the 1. generation are really just the beginning and I agree that the following generations have a huge potential which we have to release out of ecological and economical reasons!

    As far as I know we still have no working plant for cellulosic-ethanol on a commercial scale right now. But especially in the U.S.A. there are different concepts (POET, Coskata, DuPont…) which are short before being succesful on this mission. Lets hope, that biofuels out of lignocellulosic biomass will reach the market better today than tomorrow, so that the advantages you were talking about in the article will come up.

    • Salman Zafar says:

      Thanks for your kind words. Ethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass holds potential for countries which generate large amounts of crop residues. I am hopeful that worldwide research in this field will lead to mass deployment of cellulosic ethanol plants in countries like India, Indonesia, Thailand, China etc. in the coming years.

  2. Ron Kirchner says:

    Would be great to see cellulosic ethanol plants for organic residues soon. I think especially in South-East Asia with its huge biomass potential the cellulosic ethanol plants might help to produce biofuels which are more sustainable (e.g. the problems with the rain forests in Malaysia and Indonesia).

  3. Paul Hu Lim says:

    This was an interesting article when I first saw this.

    Perhaps Mr S Zafar you might like to hear about the great developments of Genesyst EU Bv in the Netherlands and the development by the Director in that plant Dr Roelof Niezen (

  4. Dr. Gunjan Mukherjee says:

    What else Biofuel can be produced from Lignocellulosic Biomass other than Bioethanol, Biomethane ?

  5. Peter Hurrell says:

    Dear Salman Zafar: an interesting article. How is it that someone has made reference to our developments in Genesyst in the European Union and the United Kingdom and Malrta etc? This was a surprise but a nice one.
    My colleague Dr G R Niezen is currently nearing finalisation of his development for Hardenberg in the Netherlkands. You ,might like to see his ideas and works as that will be using over 230,000 tonnes per year of Generic Ligno-Cellulose from Wastes which includes agricultural and food wastes as well as from Municipal Solid Waste. This will initially make Methane before transferring to Butanol and Bioplastics. This is a €80+Million development which will see the first stage up and running by 2015.

    Dr Niezen and I are also currently viewing a major development to convert a large source of Ligno-Celluloses and Macro-Algae to make Butanol and Aviation Gasoline and JP04/08 equivalents.

    In Malta we are shortly to commence starting on a two-stage programme. Initially it will convert over 290,000 tonnes per year of Biomass to make Ethanol but the demand horizon tells us that we should now go to make Butanol. This is a major development that involves an investment of €100 Million. and it should be delivering during 2015/2016. This is the start of a much wider programme for the Genesyst Companies in Europe that will take us far beyond.

  6. Suresh Mirchandani says:


  7. Richard says:

    Mr Zafar, Perhaps you are familiar with Giant King Grass now used in other direct combustion and biodigester projects. It would appear to be of similar cellulistic content and be adaptable as an energy crop feedstock for India as well.
    Thanks for your article!

  8. bloom says:

    Mr. Zafar, Thank you for your post. It was very helpfull for me. I am a chemical engineering student and i am looking forward to manufacture bioethanol from alfalfa.
    thanks for your article.

  9. Salman, It always interesting and informative to read your articles. Many which present emerging market news especially in the area of lignocellulosic biomass grass. Frequently I forward your articles to other researchers because of your
    on point comments. Still looking for C4 feedstocks such as Giant KIng Grass to be regarded as the feedstock of choice! Climate change is real and you help the cause!
    Thx, Richard

  10. Prashant Katiyar says:

    if we choose the lignocellulose biomass instead of algal biomass for biodiesel production. why lignocellulose biomass are better than algal biomass for biofuel production?

    • Salman Zafar says:

      Dear Prashant
      Thanks for your query.
      I wish to clarify that lignocellulosic biomass is the feedstock for bioethanol manufacture, and not biodiesel. The attractiveness of lignocellulose lies in its wide availability, commercially-available conversion technologies, minimal processing etc.
      Hope you agree with my views

      Best wishes
      Salman Zafar
      CEO, BioEnergy Consult

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  12. Thanks Salman,
    I’m a lawyer and post grad student currently writing a paper on “bioelectricity” in Australia. When you refer to “lignocellulosic” do you/does it only mean “waste products” from biomass and thus “second generation” – not food crops?
    Kind Regards,

    • Salman Zafar says:

      Dear Dermot
      Thanks for your interest in my article.
      Lignocellulosic biomass refers to the non-edible component of food crops (such as corn stover, crop straws, husks, cane trash and bagasse) which are essentially waste products and currently underutilized in many countries.
      However sustainable utilization of biomass demands that atleast 25-30% of lignocellulosic biomass is left in the fields for conservation of organic matter and nutrients.
      Hope this information is of interest.

      Best wishes
      Salman Zafar

      CEO, BioEnergy Consult

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