Pretreating non-edible biomass — corn leaves, stalks or switch grass — holds the keys for unlocking its energy potential and making it economically viable, according to a team of researchers led by Michigan State University.

Shishir Chundawat, a post-doctoral researcher, and Bruce Dale, professor of chemical engineering and materials science, of MSU led a team of researchers in identifying a potential pre-treatment method that can make plant cellulose five times more digestible by enzymes that convert it into ethanol, a useful biofuel.

The research was supported by the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, a partnership between the University of Wisconsin and MSU and published in the current issue of Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Currently, ethanol or other biofuels can only be produced in usable quantities if the biomass is pre-treated with costly, potentially toxic chemicals in an energy-intensive process. The new discovery could change that.

 “What we’ve discovered is something like a cost-effective switch or a lever,” Chundawat said.

“By using an ammonia-based solvent, we were able to pull a lever and flip the entire cellulose crystal from one structure to another, one that’s much easier to break down.”