Evaluation of biohydrogen production potential of sugarcane bagasse using activated sludge in a dark fermentation process
Anaerobic dark fermentation is an efficient biological process to produce hydrogen from waste material. In South Africa, this technology has not been explored adequately to extract energy from biological wastes. Within the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa, the sugar industry is a prominent venture that produces mass quantities of sugarcane bagasse amongst other waste products. This by-product can be an ideal source of substrate for biohydrogen generation. In this study, sugarcane bagasse was used as the main substrate for biohydrogen production by anaerobic fermentation using sewage sludge as the inoculum. Different pre-treatment methods were employed to maximize the release of fermentable sugars from the lignocellulosic biomass. Among the different pre-treatment methods employed, the maximum sugar yield (294.4 mg/g) was achieved with 0.25% H2SO4 for 60 minutes at 121°C. Prior to inoculation, the sewage sludge was also subjected to thermal pre-treatment to eliminate methanogens. Thermal pre-treatment of inoculum sludge for 30 min was effective in eliminating methanogens. Fluorescence in situ hybridization was used to positively identify the hydrogen producing bacteria present before and after treatment. The pre-treated substrate and inoculum was integrated into a dark fermentation process to further optimize the effect of pH, substrate to biomass, iron and magnetite nanoparticles on hydrogen production. The maximum hydrogen production (1.2 mol/mol glucose) was achieved at a pH range of 5-6, a substrate to biomass ratio of 3.5, and iron and magnetite nanoparticle concentration of 200 mg/L. Microbial analysis using quantitative polymerase chain reaction has confirmed the dominance of Clostridium spp. in the reactor. The highest hydrogenase gene activity (number of copies of hydrogenase gene expression/ng DNA) was recorded in the reactor supplemented with magnetite nanoparticles with lowest being in the raw sludge. There was a direct positive correlation between the hydrogenase gene copy number and the hydrogen yield obtained at different reactor conditions. Scanning electron microscopy was a useful to visually analyse the interaction of microorganisms with activated sludge. This study highlights the significance of anaerobic microorganisms from waste sludge being able to utilize agricultural waste material to produce biohydrogen which could be further scaled up for continuous hydrogen production. In addition, statistical tools used to predict the possible sugar (Design of experiments) and hydrogen yields (Gompertz model) produced would be helpful in saving time during full-scale operation of biohydrogen producing reactors.