Biogas production from lignocellulosic biomass is generally considered to be challenging due to the recalcitrant nature of this biomass. In this study, the recalcitrance of birch was reduced by applying steam-explosion (SE) pretreatment (210 °C and 10 min). Moreover, bioaugmentation with the cellulolytic bacterium Caldicellulosiruptor bescii was applied to possibly enhance the methane production from steam-exploded birch in an anaerobic digestion (AD) process under thermophilic conditions (62 °C).
Overall, the combined SE and bioaugmentation enhanced the methane yield up to 140% compared to untreated birch, while SE alone contributed to the major share of methane enhancement by 118%. The best methane improvement of 140% on day 50 was observed in bottles fed with pretreated birch and bioaugmentation with lower dosages of C. bescii (2 and 5% of inoculum volume). The maximum methane production rate also increased from 4-mL CH4/g VS (volatile solids)/day for untreated birch to 9-14-mL CH4/g VS/day for steam-exploded birch with applied bioaugmentation. Bioaugmentation was particularly effective for increasing the initial methane production rate of the pretreated birch yielding 21-44% more methane than the pretreated birch without applied bioaugmentation. The extent of solubilization of the organic matter was increased by more than twofold when combined SE pretreatment and bioaugmentation was used in comparison with the methane production from untreated birch. The beneficial effects of SE and bioaugmentation on methane yield indicated that biomass recalcitrance and hydrolysis step are the limiting factors for efficient AD of lignocellulosic biomass. Microbial community analysis by 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing showed that the microbial community composition was altered by the pretreatment and bioaugmentation processes. Notably, the enhanced methane production by pretreatment and bioaugmentation was well correlated with the increase in abundance of key bacterial and archaeal communities, particularly the hydrolytic bacterium Caldicoprobacter, several members of syntrophic acetate oxidizing bacteria and the hydrogenotrophic Methanothermobacter.
Our findings demonstrate the potential of combined SE and bioaugmentation for enhancing methane production from lignocellulosic biomass.