First generation bioethanol is produced by fermenting plant-derived sugars to ethanol, using a similar process to that used in beer and wine-making. This requires the use of 'food' crops, such as sugar cane, corn, wheat, and sugar beet. These crops are required for food, so, if too much biofuel is made from them, food prices could rise and shortages might be experienced in some countries. Corn, wheat, and sugar beet also require high agricultural inputs in the form of fertilizers, which limit the greenhouse gas reductions that can be achieved. Biodiesel produced by transesterification from rapeseed oil, palm oil, or other plant oils is also considered a first generation biofuel.
The goal of Second generation Bioethanol (GΙΙ) processes is to extend the amount of biofuel that can be produced sustainably by using biomass consisting of the residual non-food parts of current crops, such as stems, leaves and husks that are left behind once the food crop has been extracted, as well as other crops that are not used for food purposes (non food crops), such as switchgrass, grass, whole crop maize, miscanthus and cereals that bear little grain, and also industry waste such as woodchips, skins and pulp from fruit pressing, etc.
The problem that second generation biofuel processes are addressing is to extract useful feedstocks from this woody or fibrous biomass, where the useful sugars are locked in by lignin, hemicellulose and cellulose. All plants contain lignin, hemicelluloses and cellulose. These are complex carbohydrates (molecules based on sugar). Lignocellulosic ethanol is made by freeing the sugar molecules from cellulose using enzymes, steam heating, or other pre-treatments. These sugars can then be fermented to produce ethanol in the same way as first generation bioethanol production.