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Process Biochemistry 40 (2005) 34123418

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The effect of volatile fatty acid additions on the anaerobic


digestion of cellulose and glucose in batch reactors
Irene Siegert, Charles Banks *
School of Civil Engineering and the Environment, University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK
Received 15 April 2004; received in revised form 27 October 2004; accepted 19 January 2005

Abstract
Batch anaerobic reactor experiments were set up in which the degradation of the primary substrates cellulose and glucose was assayed
when dosed with a concentration range from 1 to 20 g l 1 of a synthetic mixture of volatile fatty acids (VFA). Biogas production from the VFA
mix and from reactors without VFA additions was used as a baseline control against which the results were compared and interpreted. The 1-l
mesophilic (35 8C) reactors were seeded with an actively digesting sludge of sewage origin and monitored for biogas production, gas
composition, volatile fatty acid concentration, glucose content and the cellulolytic enzymes carboxymethylcellulase and avicelase. Cellulose
reduction was measured from initial and final samples of the reaction mix in each case. VFA caused inhibition of the cellulolytic activity at
concentrations 2 g l 1, and therefore of the rate of cellulose hydrolysis. The fermentation of glucose was slightly inhibited at VFA
concentrations above 4 g l 1. The inhibitory effect on the production of biogas and also on the methane to carbon dioxide ratio was evident
above 6 g l 1 VFA in the initial mixture when used as the sole substrate. In combination with paper as primary substrate, biogas production
due to the paper was more than halved above 1 g l 1 initial VFA, indicating inhibition of the hydrolysis process. Where glucose was the
primary substrate biogas production was more than halved above 8 g l 1 which indicated that the fermentation was less sensitive to inhibition
caused by VFA.
# 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Anaerobic digestion; Cellulose; Glucose; Enzyme; VFA; Inhibition

1. Introduction
Anaerobic digestion involves a series of metabolic
reactions in which complex components in the feed are
sequentially reduced to a mixture of methane and carbon
dioxide as the principal end products. These reactions are
often simply referred to as: hydrolysis, fermentation and
methanogenesis [1,2]. The methanogenic phase is normally
considered the limiting step of the process due to the slow
growth rate of the methanogenic bacteria. Where the
substrate is particulate and comprises predominantly
cellulose then hydrolysis can be the controlling step in
the conversion process [3,4].
Various physicalchemical conditions affect the production
of methane, and inhibition of bacterial activity by either
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 23 805 94650; fax: +44 23 806 77519.
E-mail address: cjb@soton.ac.uk (C. Banks).
1359-5113/$ see front matter # 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.procbio.2005.01.025

substrate or product may be expected when their concentrations


are increased to extremes. For example, high volatile fatty acid
(VFA) concentrations in the system cause the inhibition of
methanogenesis [1,58]. Under conditions of overloading and
in the presence of inhibitors, methanogenic activity cannot
remove hydrogen and volatile organic acids as quickly as they
are produced. The result is the accumulation of acids, the
depletion of buffering capacity and the depression of pH to
levels that also inhibit the hydrolysis/acidogenesis phase [9]. It
has also been shown that even when process pH is optimal, the
accumulation of VFAs may contribute to a reduced rate of
hydrolysis of the solid organic substrate [10], or even to
inhibition at extremely high levels (>10 g l 1) [9]. Inhibition of
the fermentative bacterial population by its main product VFAs
when using glucose as the main substrate [11] has also been
observed.
One of the most important ways of maintaining the
carbon and electron flow during anaerobic digestion is to

I. Siegert, C. Banks / Process Biochemistry 40 (2005) 34123418

control the organic loading to the system, creating a


favorable environment for the mixed culture of microorganisms, to ensure VFA production and utilisation rates
are balanced [1,12]. To some extent the problem associated
with the accumulation of process intermediates encountered
in conventional single phase digesters has been overcome by
the use of two phase digestion systems that alleviate the
build up of VFAs within the hydrolysis/acidogenesis phase
[13].
The current work investigates the effect of VFAs in batch
systems on each phase of the anaerobic digestion process,
i.e. hydrolysis, acidogenesis and biogas production (methanogenesis), by using a synthetic mixture of VFA as an
intermediate substrate. Both low lignin papercellulose and
glucose have been used as primary substrates thus allowing
the effect of VFA on hydrolysis and acidogenesis to be
determined independently.

2. Materials and methods


2.1. Substrates
The cellulosic substrate used as a main carbon source to
assay hydrolysis reactions was paper with a weight of
23 g m 2. This was manufactured using two parts of
hardwood pulp from Wisa forest (containing 91.76%
cellulose and 1.1% lignin), and one part softwood from
Lagonia pine (with 91.70% cellulose and 1.36% lignin). The
paper contained no fillers, binders or surface coatings and
was said to be typical in its pulp composition to paper
manufactured for magazines and stationary, but not typical
of that used for newsprint, which has a higher lignin content.
The finished sheet paper, which was 0.5 mm thick, was
shredded into 4 mm strips of 150 mm length and dried
overnight at 100 8C prior to use. To assay the fermentative
reactions a soluble substrate in the form of D-glucose powder
(VWR International, UK) was used as the main carbon
source. The synthetic mixture of volatile fatty acids
consisted of: 18% acetic acid, 50% propionic acid, 5% nbutyric acid, 12% iso-butyric acid, 5% n-valeric acid, 5%
iso-valeric acid, 2% caproic acid and 3% heptanoic acid. All
VFA components were obtained from Sigma Ltd., UK.

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Fig. 1. Schematic representation of the 1-l digesters and water displacement


gasometers.

elements solution and 1.0 mg resazurin. The trace elements


solution contained (per litre of distilled water): 5.1 ml HCl
36%; 1.5 g FeCl24H2O; 60 mg H3BO3; 100 mg
MnCl24H2O; 120 mg CoCl26H2O; 70 mg ZnCl2; 25 mg
NiCl26H2O; 15 mg CuCl22H2O; 25 mg NaMoO42H2O
[14]. Before use, the dilution medium was either autoclaved
for 5 min at 121 8C or boiled and then cooled whilst sparging
with nitrogen to remove dissolved oxygen. When cool
1.2 g l 1 of NaHCO3 was added.
2.4. Reactors
The reactors were of a 1-l batch suspended growth design
without mechanical mixing (Fig. 1). Each comprised of a
sealed vessel maintained in a water bath at constant
temperature of 35 8C and agitated manually at least twice a
day to avoid stratification. Each digester had a gas sampling
valve which allowed samples to be taken without
interference with head space composition and was
connected to a gas collection system of two acidified water
displacement bottles connected in series for gas volume
measurement. After filling with test substrate and inoculum
the reactors were sparged with nitrogen and kept isolated
from the atmosphere throughout the experiment. Samples
for analysis were taken every 2 days, and gas volumes were
recorded daily and corrected to standard temperature and
pressure.
2.5. Experimental design

2.2. Inoculum
Anaerobic digester sludge was obtained from Millbrook
wastewater treatment plant, Southampton, UK. The sludge
had a pH of 7.207.28 and contained on average 0.47% total
solids and 0.18% total volatile solids.
2.3. Dilution medium
The dilution medium contained the following (per litre of
deionised water): 2.7 g KH2PO4, 3.5 g K2HPO4, 0.53 g
NH4Cl, 0.08 g CaCl22H2O, 0.1 g MgCl26H2O, 1.0 ml trace

Three different experiments were set up to study the


effect of a synthetic mixture of volatile fatty acids between
the concentrations of 1 and 20 g l 1 in the different phases of
the anaerobic digestion process. Experiment 1 used
14.85 g l 1 of the paper as the primary substrate; experiment
2 used 15.7 g l 1 of glucose as the primary substrate;
experiment 3 used VFA as the only substrate. In each case,
the reactors were set up with a 20% (v/v) inoculum with the
volume being made up to 710 ml with the dilution medium.
All experiments were set up in duplicate, with controls
without substrate (cellulose or glucose) and without initial

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I. Siegert, C. Banks / Process Biochemistry 40 (2005) 34123418

VFA additions. In all experiments, a reactor pH of 7 was


maintained throughout by adding the appropriate amount of
5 M KOH. Mass balances were obtained for the three
experimental studies.
2.6. Analytical methods
Total solids (TS) and total volatile solids (TVS) were
determined according to Standard Methods [15]. Cellulose
content was determined by homogenizing a 20 ml sample,
which was then centrifuged at 3500 rpm for 15 min. The
supernatant was discarded and the pellet resuspended in
15 ml of an aceticnitric acid reagent (prepared by mixing
150 ml of 80% acetic acid and 15 ml of concentrated nitric
acid). The suspension was then boiled in a water bath for
30 min. The sample was cooled, centrifuged and the
supernatant discarded. The pellet was then resuspended in
distilled water. This washing procedure was repeated a
further two times to ensure that all non-cellulosic material
was removed. The final sample was resuspended in distilled
water and filtered through a pre-dried pre-weighed 0.45 mm
glass fibre filter (Whatman GFC). The filter was then dried at
100 8C to a constant weight and the weight difference was
taken to be the cellulose/hemicellulose content of the
original 20 ml sample. The control reactor without cellulose
was also analysed for cellulose content and the result
subtracted from the cellulose content of the samples [16,17].
Glucose content was determined by the dinitrosalicylic acid
(DNS) method [18]. Volatile fatty acids were quantified and
differentiated using a Varian star 3400 CX gas chromatograph (GC) with a free fatty acid phase (FFAP) 25 m fused
silica capillary column of 0.5 mm film thickness and an i.d.
of 0.53 mm. The GC oven temperature was programmed to
increment from 60 to 100 8C in 10 min, and then to maintain
a final temperature for 5 min, with a final hold time of 2 min
at a temperature of 210 8C to clean the column of any
residues. Carrier gas flow to the GC was at a rate of
6 ml min 1 and peak detection was by means of a flame
ionisation detector. Samples were pre-treated by acidifying
to 10% with formic acid. Gas composition was determined

using a Fisons cathometer head space analyser with columns


for separation of methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2) and
nitrogen (N2). Enzyme assays were carried out as follows:
carboxymethylcellulase (CMC) activity was determined as
previously described [19,20] using 1% CMC solution in
0.1 M citrate buffer at pH 6.0; avicelase activity was
determined as previously described [17,20] using a solution
of 5 mg ml 1 avicel plus 0.1 mg ml 1 glucose in 0.1 M
citrate buffer at pH 6.0. One unit of activity was defined as
the amount of enzyme, which releases 1 mmol of reducing
sugars min 1, measured using the DNS method with glucose
as the standard. Protein content was determined by the
method of Bradford [21] with bovine serum albumin as a
standard.

3. Results and discussion


The enzymatic assay results from experiment 1 in which
14.85 g l 1 of the paper was used as the primary substrate
together with VFA additions in the range 120 g l 1 are
shown in Figs. 2 and 3. The cellulolytic activity, as assayed
by the carboxymethylcellulase (a) and avicelase (b)
methods, decreased with the increase in synthetic VFA
concentrations initially added to the system. No carboxymethylcellulase (or endoglucanase) activity was observed
at above 16 g VFA l 1 and no avicelase (or exoglucanase/bglucosidase) activity was observed above 10 g VFA l 1.
This is borne out by the fact that the enzymic activities
measured were lower than those measured in the control
(control 2) in which no primary substrate was present. An
inhibitory effect on the hydrolysis of cellulose was also
observed at concentrations above 2 g l 1 VFA as indicated
by the reduction in cellulose content measured (Table 1)
with no apparent reduction in the initial cellulose load at
VFA concentrations of 16 and 20 g l 1. The maximum
carboxymethylcellulase and avicelase activities were
observed after 6 days. The maximum concentration of
soluble proteins (1.09 mg ml 1) was produced when
primary substrate was present but no initial VFAs were

Fig. 2. Carboxymethylcellulase activity induced at an initial primary substrate concentration of 14.85 g l 1 of the paper with VFA additions at concentrations
of: (&) 1 g l 1, (&) 2 g l 1, (~) 4 g l 1, (~) 6 g l 1, (^) 8 g l 1, (^) 10 g l 1, (+) 12 g l 1, () 16 g l 1, (*) 20 g l 1. Controls were without VFA additions
and contained primary cellulosic substrate (*) and no primary substrate (*).

I. Siegert, C. Banks / Process Biochemistry 40 (2005) 34123418

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Fig. 3. Avicelase activity induced at an initial primary substrate concentration of 14.85 g l 1 of the paper with VFA additions at concentrations of: (&) 1 g l 1,
(&) 2 g l 1, (~) 4 g l 1, (~) 6 g l 1, (^) 8 g l 1, (^) 10 g l 1, (+) 12 g l 1, () 16 g l 1, (*) 20 g l 1. Controls were without VFA additions and contained
primary cellulosic substrate (*) and no primary substrate (*).

Table 1
Average reductizzon in cellulose content, and average gas and VFA production from digestion of cellulose and glucose at different initial VFA concentrations
Initial
VFA (g l 1)

Cellulose
reduction (%)

Cellulose
digested
(ml biogas g 1)

CH4:CO2 ratio
from cellulose
digestion

VFA production
from cellulose
digestion (g l 1)

Glucose
digested
(ml biogas g 1)

VFA production
from glucose
digestion (g l 1)

1
2
4
6
8
10
12
16
20
Control 1

61.83
46.67
40.84
32.32
24.75
8.77
5.49
0
0
66.45

251
95
77
34
11
0
0
0
0
287

1:1.30
1:1.36
1:1.50
1:1.64
1:1.90

4.80
5.11
4.04
3.82
2.34
1.09
0.60
0
0
4.45

122
107
102
99
78
38
33
16
16
126

11.33
11.45
12.04
11.75
12.07
13.79
10.00
13.25
13.83
10.75

Gas composition ratios from cellulose digestion are shown where biogas was produced.

added (control 1) and at 1 g l 1 VFA (0.93 mg ml 1). At


VFA concentrations of 2 g l 1 and above protein production
decreased from 0.86 to 0.57 mg ml 1 with increasing VFA
concentration.

The results support the general theory that catabolic


enzymes are repressed by immediate or distant products of
their activity. One possibility is by feedback inhibition,
where a product of an enzyme or a series of enzymes in a

Fig. 4. Glucose reduction from an initial substrate concentration 15.7 g l 1 at VFA concentrations of: (&) 1 g l 1, (&) 2 g l 1, (~) 4 g l 1, (~) 6 g l 1, (^)
8 g l 1, (^) 10 g l 1, (+) 12 g l 1, () 16 g l 1, (*) 20 g l 1 with controls containing glucose (*) and no glucose (*) with no initial VFA additions.

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I. Siegert, C. Banks / Process Biochemistry 40 (2005) 34123418

Table 2
Biogas production from the digestion of cellulose, glucose and synthetic volatile fatty acids at different initial VFA concentrations added
Initial addition
of VFA (g l 1)

Volume of biogas
produced from
cellulose digestion (ml)

Volume of biogas
produced from
glucose digestion (ml)

Volume of biogas
produced from the VFA
mixture initially added (ml)

1
2
4
6
8
10
12
16
20
Control 1
Control 2

2548
900
710
512
407
286
185
60
0
2829
244

1948
1706
1631
1591
1256
641
560
307
307
2016
67

195
199
139
129
89
79
79
76
77

100

pathway acts on an enzyme earlier in the pathway and stops


its activity. This type of inhibitor is generally an organic
molecule and its effect on the enzyme in most cases
increases with the concentration of the inhibitor; the effects
are usually reversible [2224].
The results of experiment 2, where glucose was used as
the primary substrate, are shown in Fig. 4. There was an
immediate response shown by a reduction in glucose
concentration in reactors exposed to initial VFA concentrations 4 g l 1. The glucose for all the treatments was
completely digested after 68 h, however, with reactors at
higher initial VFA concentrations showing a delay in the
onset of fermentation by as much as 16 h. These results
agree with previous research [25], in which it was found that
a mixture of acetic, propionic and butyric acids at 6 g l 1
was slightly toxic to acid forming bacteria but did not show
any inhibitory effect on methanogenesis.
In experiment 1 with the increased VFA load, there was a
decrease in the amount of biogas associated with the
degradation of the primary substrate produced and a

corresponding increase in VFA concentration. The composition of the biogas was also found to change in the cellulose
fed digester with the CH4:CO2 ratio changing from 1:1.30 to
1:1.90 with an increase in VFA concentration from 1 to
8 g l 1 (Table 1). In experiment 2, the digestion of glucose
at different VFA concentrations led mainly to the
production of carbon dioxide. A slight increase in the
amount of VFAs produced was also observed associated
with the lowest concentration of VFA initially added
(1 g l 1).
Table 2 shows the effect of the synthetic mixture of VFAs
on the production of gas from the different substrates used.
The volatile intermediates produced from the digestion of
cellulose and glucose and the overall balance of VFA
suggests that the primary substrates are more easily
transformed to biogas by the methanogenic microorganisms
than the synthetic VFAs initially added, although the
possibility of an interchange within the overall VFA pool
cannot be discounted. None of the experiments allowed for
an acclimation of the inoculum prior to the tests and the

Fig. 5. Cumulative gas production without addition of primary substrate and addition of VFA at concentrations of: (*) 0 g l 1, (&) 1 g l 1, (&) 2 g l 1, (~)
4 g l 1, (~) 6 g l 1, (^) 8 g l 1, (^) 10 g l 1, (+) 12 g l 1, () 16 g l 1, (*) 20 g l 1.

I. Siegert, C. Banks / Process Biochemistry 40 (2005) 34123418

magnitude of the inhibitory effect observed could


probably be reduced if the VFA concentrations in the
reactors had been increased slowly rather than as a step
change [26].
The daily biogas production from experiment 3, where
the primary substrate was only VFA, is shown in Fig. 5. No
biogas production above those exhibited by the VFA free
control was observed above initial VFA concentrations
6 g l 1 VFA. The CH4:CO2 ratio for the VFA concentrations
of 1, 2, 4 and 6 g of initial VFA were 1:1.25, 1:1.5, 1:1.9 and
1:33, respectively, above an initial VFA concentration of 6 g
the biogas volume generated and its methane content was
negligible. The effect of volatile intermediates on methanogenesis has been extensively studied [9,2729], and it is
generally accepted that propionic acid has a stronger
inhibitory effect on methanogenesis than acetic or butyric
acid. The mixture of synthetic VFAs used in this work
contains a relatively high proportion of propionic acid
(50%). The reason for this is it was prepared to simulate to
the proportion of VFAs observed from the digestion at pH 7
of the primary cellulosic substrate carried out as a
preliminary study to this work.

4. Conclusions
The presence of increasing concentrations of VFA in a
batch anaerobic reactor system were shown to have a
differential effect on the metabolically distinct phases of
hydrolysis, acidogenesis and biogas production associated
with the anaerobic digestion process. Independently of the
system pH, VFA caused the inhibition of the cellulolytic
activity at concentrations 2 g l 1, and therefore of the rate
of cellulose hydrolysis. The fermentation of glucose was
slightly inhibited at VFA concentrations above 4 g l 1. The
inhibitory effect on the production of biogas and also on the
methane to carbon dioxide ratio was evident above 6 g l 1
VFA in the initial mixture when used as the sole substrate. In
combination with paper as primary substrate, biogas
production due to the paper was more than halved above
1 g l 1 initial VFA, indicating inhibition of the hydrolysis
process. Where glucose was the primary substrate biogas
production was more than halved above 8 g l 1 which
indicated that the fermentation was less sensitive to
inhibition caused by VFA.

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