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Sweet future of cellulosic sugar

UPDATE 1/17/13: You can get the latest press release about the Sweetwater and Front Range Energy deal here. I’ve also been remiss in forgetting to mention major cellulosic ethanol players and enzymes producers including DuPont, POET-DSM, Novozymes, Abengoa,  BP Biofuels, INEOS Bio, who have all been working on cellulosic sugar production as well. 

The blog has been gathering some information about the market for cellulosic sugar and since this industry seems to be still at its nascent stage, there is not really much to get unless I delve deeply into several technical journals that will probably take me months to understand.

What the blog knows and everybody in the renewable chemicals and biofuel market understand is that cellulosic sugar is a very big market opportunity as an alternative or supplementary feedstock for both energy and petrochemical industries. One fellow twitter noted a recent post by ICIS blogger Paul Hodges about average crude oil prices continuously sustained at over $100/bbl for two years in a row now.

This means, most of the biobased chemical intermediates currently being developed is already comparable — and some even more competitive, than petrochemical-based intermediates. But the quest does not stop in just becoming cost-competitive, but also addressing the sustainability issues of feedstock being used for biobased chemicals and biofuel. The holy grail these days is to find use for waste streams or non-food crops (that don’t need fertilizer, too much water, etc) and make them a profitable market.

And here enters sugars from cellulose, hemicellulose or lignocellulose. The key is to find a company skilled in pretreatment process and enzymes that can extract sugar in high yields and at low-cost.

The companies dealing with cellulosic sugar development and production (and it was hard for the blog to get this information since it doesn’t cover feedstock that much) are Renmatix, Proterro, Comet Biorefining, Virdia, Sweetwater Energy, Beta Renewables (with its PROESA Technology), Old Town Fuel & Fiber, Blue Sugars, Edeniq, and SucreSource. I am sure there are more out there.

And so we come to the body of our post, which are recent developments in the cellulosic sugar sector.

Last week, Renmatix announced the commissioning of its BioFlex Conversion Unit (BCU), a multiple-feedstock processing facility at Renmatix’s headquarters in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The event was attended by Secretary Tom Vilsack of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The new unit will test and convert a range of non-food plant materials such as hardwood, perennial grasses, agricultural residues, softwoods and waste streams through Renmatix’s Plantrose process. The cellulosic sugars produced on-site via the BCU will support downstream fuel and chemical strategic partners, says Renmatix. By the way, BASF was one of Renmatix’s current investors.

“This new production facility will expand the relevance of the Plantrose process by helping to evaluate renewable feedstocks that are abundantly available in a variety of climates and geographies worldwide,” said Renmatix CEO Mike Hamilton. “The sugars produced at this site will continue to enable development of the emerging bioeconomy and will be shared with key industry collaborators and Fortune 50 downstream partners in our active sampling program.”

Here is a short explanation from Renmatix of how their process works. One interesting to note here is that their technology process does not use enzymes but instead uses pure water as solvent. The end products in the Plantrose process are C5 (xylose) and C6 (glucose) sugars. Renmatix currently has another operation in Georgia capable of converting 3 dry tons/day of cellulosic biomass to produce its sugar under the tradename Plantro.

Meanwhile, New York-based Sweetwater Energy announced a long-term commercial deal with Wisconsin-based corn ethanol producer Ace Ethanol to generate cellulosic ethanol at Ace’s plant in Stanley, WI, for up to 16 years.

According to the companies, the contract has a total potential value of more than $100m and requires minimal capital by Ace Ethanol. Sweetwater plans to build a cellulosic facility adjacent to the Ace Ethanol site, delivering refined monomeric sugar for Ace to produce up to 3.6m gal/year of ethanol during the initial phase of the partnership.

“Ace Ethanol has been bench testing Sweetwater’s cellulosic material for some time and we’re confident that this project will be commercially profitable,” says Neal Kemmet, President of Ace Ethanol. “With Sweetwater, we’ll move from 100% corn to a combination of corn starch and 7% cellulosic sugar as our feedstocks.”

Actually, according to this article from DemocratAndChronicle.com, Sweetwater also recently signed a 15-year contract, this time with Colorado-based Front Range Energy. The blog was unable to get any press release on the said contract. Front Range Energy has a 40m gal/year dry mill ethanol plant in Weld County, Colorado.

According to the article, the Sweetwater plants that will be built close to the ethanol facilities of its customers are expected to be operational in about a year. On a daily basis, the Sweetwater plants will convert about 100 tons of cellulosic feedstock into about 65 tons of sugar.

Earlier this year, Sweetwater began operation of its pilot-scale cellulosic sugar processing facility at its headquarters. The company said it is currently constructing a demonstration-scale facility at the same location later this year, which will allow final vetting of the Sweetwater technology at commercial scale.

During Secretary Vilsack’s visit to Renmatix’s plant commissioning, the USDA announced that it has granted $25m to fund several R&D of next generation biobased products and renewable energy using biomass feedstock.

Projects selected for the grant included a technology from Utah-based Ceramatec Inc. which aims to convert lignocellulosic biomass to infrastructure-compatible renewable diesel, biolubricants, animal feed and biopower; an anaerobic digestion system project by Ohio State University that can produce biofuels and electricity from animal manure, agricultural residues, woody biomass and energy crops; and an on-the-farm distributed technology by the USDA Agricultural Research Service that can convert forest residues, horse manure, switchgrass and other perennial grasses into biofuels and specialty chemicals.

Last but not the least, the blog just wanted to share this industry progress report for cellulosic biofuels released by the Advanced Ethanol Council (AEC). It profiles production facilities and projects across the country and producing nations around the world.

As far as bio-based chemicals are concern, the blog will leave you with this chart from Nexant, which put out a prospectus study about cellulosic sugars’ potential in the chemical market last year. The consulting firm estimated that in the next 5-10 years, it will be possible and potentially economically viable to produce any type of sugar-based chemical product from biomass due to developments in cellulosic processing.

Nexant said the two main routes to sugar-based chemicals from biomass are catalytic and biological (with fermentation).

Source: Nexant

About Doris de Guzman

Will Green Chemistry save the world or is it hype? Doris de Guzman examines alternative processing, new technology, R&D and other sustainability initiatives aimed at preventing pollution; replacing ingredients; and using renewable feedstocks in Green Chemistry. She has been covering the oleochemicals market for 15 years and spread her beat to inorganics, biofuels and green chemistry.

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