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MSU team develops consolidated bioprocessing platform for efficient production of ethanol and hydrogen from biomass with a microbial electrolysis cell

Researchers at Michigan State University have developed a method for the consolidated bioprocessing (CBP) of corn stover pretreated by ammonia fiber expansion (AFEX-CS) to produce ethanol and hydrogen with a microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) using the ethanol-producing bacterium Cellulomonas uda in partnership with the exoelectrogenic bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens.

The synergistic activities of the ethanol-producing and electricity-producing bacteria resulted in substantial energy recoveries from ethanol production alone (ca. 56%). (G. sulfurreducens removes waste fermentation byproducts that can inhibit ethanol production.) The cogeneration of H2 in the MEC further increased the energy recoveries to ca. 73%.

The potential to optimize the activities of the microbial catalysts via culturing approaches and genetic engineering or adaptive evolution make this platform attractive for the processing of agricultural wastes, the researchers suggested in a paper published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Native lignocellulose degraders show promise as CBP catalysts because their hydrolysis and fermentation efficiencies are naturally evolved to maximize cell growth yields from biomass. However, these microorganisms are adapted to growing within specialized, synergistic consortia, where fermentation products are rapidly removed to prevent feedback inhibition of biomass decomposition and fermentation using various electron acceptors as final electron sinks.

The possibility of mimicking CBP consortia in bioelectrochemical cells is attractive because an electrode can be used to replace the natural electron acceptors and model exoelectrogens such as Geobacter sulfurreducens are available that conserve energy for growth by transferring electrons from waste fermentation products such as acetate, formate, lactate, and H2 to electrodes.

Furthermore, with sufficient electrical input the current generated in the anode can be converted into H2 in the cathode chamber in a microbial electrolysis cell (MEC), thus producing H2 fuel as a coproduct.

—Speers and Reguera (2012)

MECs are attractive as CBP platforms for ethanol because the electrical input can be used to produce H2 simultaneously in the cathode at much higher yields than those achieved fermentatively, the authors note. Furthermore, the applied potential removes cathodic limitations and promotes the growth of exoelectrogenic biofilms on the anode electrode, which in turn maximizes the conversion of fermentation byproducts to cathodic H2 while preventing the accumulation of feedback inhibitors. However, they added, it is important to minimize electron losses by selecting CBP strains that produce fermentation byproducts that serve as electron donors for the exoelectrogen.

For their system, Gemma Reguera, MSU microbiologist, and Allison Spears, MSU graduate student, selected C. uda for its ability to produce ethanol from AFEX-CS and for producing electron donors for G. sulfurreducens fermentatively. G. sulfurreducens generates electricity used to generate hydrogen in the MEC to increase the energy recovery process even more.

The fermentation and electrical conversion efficiencies were high, but much of the AFEX-CS remained unhydrolyzed as nitrogen availability limited the growth of the CBP partner. Nitrogen supplementation stimulated the growth of C. uda, AFEX-CS hydrolysis and ethanologenesis.

Similar microbial fuel cells have been previously investigated. However, maximum energy recoveries from corn stover, a common feedstock for biofuels, hover around 3.5%. Reguera’s platform, despite the energy invested in chemical pretreatment of the corn stover, averaged 35 to 40% energy recovery just from the fermentation process.

This is because the fermentative bacterium was carefully selected to degrade and ferment agricultural wastes into ethanol efficiently and to produce byproducts that could be metabolized by the electricity-producing bacterium. By removing the waste products of fermentation, the growth and metabolism of the fermentative bacterium also was stimulated. Basically, each step we take is custom-designed to be optimal.

When the MEC generates hydrogen, it actually doubles the energy recoveries. We increased energy recovery to 73 percent. So the potential is definitely there to make this platform attractive for processing agricultural wastes.

—Gemma Reguera

Reguera’s fuel cells use corn stover treated by the ammonia fiber expansion process, an advanced pretreatment technology pioneered at MSU. AFEX is an already proven method that was developed by Dr. Bruce Dale, MSU professor of chemical engineering and materials science.

Dale is currently working to make AFEX viable on a commercial scale.

In a similar vein, Reguera is continuing to optimize her MECs so they also can be scaled up on a commercial basis. Her goal is to develop decentralized systems that can help process agricultural wastes. Decentralized systems could be customized at small- to medium-scales (scales such as compost bins and small silages, for example) to provide an attractive method to recycle the wastes while generating fuel for farms.

The MEC platform fed with AFEX-CS and described herein addresses the need to decouple bioenergy production from the food supply, to reduce processing costs through the use of lignocellulose substrates, and to carry out a single-step hydrolysis and fermentation while minimizing the accumulation of low-value fermentation byproducts that can also function as feedback inhibitors.

Relatively simple culturing approaches such as nitrogen supplementation were sufficient to improve the growth of the CBP partner and the electrical conversion of waste fermentation products by the exoelectrogen in the MEC. Further optimization of the culturing conditions shows promise to increase the activity of the microbial catalysts so as to improve the performance of the platform. This, and the possibility of genetically engineering and/or adaptively evolving the microbial catalysts for improved hydrolysis, saccharification, and electrical conversion, suggests that the processing of lignocellulose substrates in MECs can provide an economically and environmentally attractive CBP technology for ethanol and H2.

—Speers and Reguera (2012)


  • Allison M. Speers and Gemma Reguera (2012) Consolidated Bioprocessing of AFEX-Pretreated Corn Stover to Ethanol and Hydrogen in a Microbial Electrolysis Cell. Environmental Science & Technology doi: 10.1021/es3008497



This can maybe work but the main problem is that feedstock are scarce and irregular compare to conventionnal petrol so it won't be competitive. H2 don't need to be made at a central plant and transported but it has to be done at the point of sale with small machinery water and electricity as only feedstock.

Farmers will be much rewarded by transforming all this waste to natural gas and power their machineries.


Natural gas is difficult to store on small scales.  Liquids are much easier and cheaper.  Perhaps this scheme for the anode could be coupled to a more advanced version of the formate-generating cathode developed elsewhere and the carbon converted to things like 4- and 5-carbon alcohols.  Isobutanol is a relatively dense liquid which stores easily and would make a good fuel, far easier to handle than hydrogen.


Yes, liquid fuel have higher energy density and can normally be stored and transported more easily. However, converting them back to energy via burning (ICE etc) produces a lot of pollution. Direct chemical conversion to electricity would help.

Very high efficiency energy converters (like very high efficiency PVs) all always too costly.


Your typical SOFC is a fairly efficient converter, and generally clean.  The main issue with higher alcohols for SOFC fuel is that reforming is required, and while I understand that there are some claims that the coking issue has been resolved I'm not sure how real it is.

Henry Gibson

Micro turbines are very clean operating on all fuels, and methane from bio-gas can be stored in large plastic bags as gas holders. The very small Bladen Jets turbine looks very promising. Charging batteries is much less costly and far more efficient than the production of hydrogen gas. ..HG..

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