Biotransformation of Furanic and Phenolic Compounds with Hydrogen Gas Production in a Microbial Electrolysis Cell

Furanic and phenolic compounds are problematic byproducts resulting from the breakdown of lignocellulosic biomass during biofuel production. The capacity of a microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) to produce hydrogen gas (H2) using a mixture of two furanic (furfural, FF; 5-hydroxymethyl furfural, HMF) and three phenolic (syringic acid, SA; vanillic acid, VA; and 4-hydroxybenzoic acid, HBA) compounds as the substrate in the bioanode was assessed. The rate and extent of biotransformation of the five compounds and efficiency of H2 production, as well as the structure of the anode microbial community, were investigated. The five compounds were completely transformed within 7-day batch runs and their biotransformation rate increased with increasing initial concentration. At an initial concentration of 1200 mg/L (8.7 mM) of the mixture of the five compounds, their biotransformation rate ranged from 0.85 to 2.34 mM/d. The anode Coulombic efficiency was 44–69%, which is comparable to that of wastewater-fed MECs. The H2 yield varied from 0.26 to 0.42 g H2–COD/g COD removed in the anode, and the bioanode volume-normalized H2 production rate was 0.07–0.1 L/L-d. The biotransformation of the five compounds took place via fermentation followed by exoelectrogenesis. The major identified fermentation products that did not transform further were catechol and phenol. Acetate was the direct substrate for exoelectrogenesis. Current and H2 production were inhibited at an initial substrate concentration of 1200 mg/L, resulting in acetate accumulation at a much higher level than that measured in other batch runs conducted with a lower initial concentration of the five compounds. The anode microbial community consisted of exoelectrogens, putative degraders of the five compounds, and syntrophic partners of exoelectrogens. The MEC H2 production demonstrated in this study is an alternative to the currently used process of reforming natural gas to supply H2 needed to upgrade bio-oils to stable hydrocarbon fuels.