Company initiatives, Feedstock, Partnership, R&D

Cellulosic sugar news galore

I hope the blog’s readers are having a great holiday! Already got my presents and I’m currently enjoying the aftermath of good food, drinks, and post-Christmas shopping sales. This is also as good time as any to write a post about sugars (and which I seemed to have consumed a lot in the past several days) given my free time away from Tecnon OrbiChem’s newsletter.

I’m writing specifically about recent cellulosic sugars activities especially from Renmatix, Proterro and Sweetwater. I also had a nice chat with Helios Scientific during the World Bio Markets USA in San Francisco in late October, and just recently, with a Midwest sorghum farmer who was inquiring about the bio-based chemicals market.

Let’s start with Renmatix, which recently announced two big-time partnerships this month — BASF and Virent/Coca-Cola.

The partnership of Virent/Coca-Cola and Renmatix is targeting the use of cellulosic sugar in the production of bio-based paraxylene, a raw material used in the manufacture of purified terephthalic acid (PTA), which is a major chemical component in the production of PET bottles or fibers.  Virent and Coca-Cola are currently working to developed a drop-in bio-based PX for Coca-Cola to be able to soon offer a 100% bio-based PET bottle under its PlantBottle packaging.  Virent’s bio-based PX product will be marketed under the trademark BioFormPX.

Right now, Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle is made from sugarcane ethanol-based monoethylene glycol or MEG (the other component of PET) and petro-based PTA. Bio-based MEG has an average 40% premium, according to Tecnon OrbiChem’s Bio-Materials report. It will be difficult for Coca-Cola (and for those of Coca-Cola’s partners who are working towards bio-based PTA or other alternatives) to absorb more bio-based premiums in order to manufacture a 100% bio-based PET bottle. Coca-Cola’s partners have to think about sourcing lower feedstock costs at this early stage to be able to satisfy Coca-Cola’s sustainability demands.

This is where cellulosic sugars are trying to come in in addition to being a non-food feedstock. Renmatix said its Plantrose platform will be evaluated and potentially optimized to provide an affordable sugar streams for Virent’s Bioforming process for large-scale production of bio-based PX. The Plantrose process reportedly produces affordable cellulosic sugars, C5 (xylose) and C6 (glucose) using water-based method called supercritical hydrolysis in lieu of more expensive chemical and enzymatic routes to cellulosic sugars used today.

Here is a video from ICIS about Renmatix and Virent/Coca-Cola announcement:

In a separate news, Renmatix also recently partnered with BASF allowing the German chemical company to consider licensing Renmatix’s Plantrose processing in future commercial production of bio-based chemicals. The parties have agreed to key financial terms for future commercial licenses, which BASF can exercise at its discretion.  The companies will also jointly scale up the Plantrose process. The collaboration follows BASF’s $30 million investment in Renmatix in January 2012.

Unlike the Virent/Coca-Cola deal, the agreement with BASF does not focus on one or two bio-based chemicals but any chemicals that can use lignocellulosic sugar feedstock where BASF is interested in investing in commercial production.  Some potential examples include bio-based BDO and its derivatives (partnership with Genomatica), succinic acid (Succinity JV), and acrylic acid (partnership with Novozymes and Cargill).

There are no specifics on the this press release disclosed although it is interesting that BASF is investing in cellulosic sugar processing technology that does not use enzymes (given that the company is a big enzymes producer/developer). The companies seem to be focusing on woody biomass as starting raw materials.

I asked Renmatix on what price level their cellulosic sugars is currently at. The company said it is below that of the traditional commercial sugars being traded in the market.  Nearby price contract for #11 raw sugar has been traded recently at around 16c/lb. This is compared to last year’s price traded at around 19c/lb.  There are several cellulosic sugar companies claiming they can produce sugars at around 10-13c/lb, and some even lower than this, although readers do have to take these statements with a grain of salt as the price of sugars being traded in the market is different from producers’ sugar price.

Renmatix currently has a pilot operation in Georgia capable of converting 3 dry tons/day of cellulosic biomass to produce its sugar under the tradename Plantro.

In other news, NY-based cellulosic sugar producer Sweetwater Energy has announced a deal to supply customized industrial sugars to Pacific Ethanol’s Stockton, California, cellulosic biorefinery, which is expected to produce up to 3.6 million gallons/year of cellulosic ethanol, contingent upon Sweetwater Energy obtaining the necessary financing and permits. Sweetwater will initially supply up to 6% of the biorefinery’s feedstock requirements. Pacific Ethanol’s Stockton facility currently has an operating capacity of 60m gal/year producing traditional ethanol that uses corn and sugar beets for feedstock.

Earlier this year, Sweetwater began operation of its demo-scale cellulosic sugar processing facility at its headquarters in Rochester using BioGasol ApS’ pretreatment system Carbofrac 10.  The unit is cable of processing 100 kg of dry biomass per hour. Sweetwater uses a patented, modular approach to convert lignocellulosic materials into sugars via enzymatic hydrolysis.

Sweetwater Energy has also been busy with partnerships this year such as its project with Naturally Scientific to produce sugar from waste carbon dioxide; its long-term commercial deal with Ace Ethanol to generate cellulosic ethanol at Ace’s plant in Stanley, Wisconsin, for up to 16 years; and a deal with Colorado-based Front Range Energy.

Last but not the least, cellulosic sugar developer Proterro has been issued the patent 8,597,914 that aims to protect Proterro’s biosynthetic sugar-making process. Proterro has developed a process that integrates transgenic sugar-producing microorganisms, cyanobacteria, with a modular photobioreactor made from off-the-shelf materials. The process yields a fermentation-ready sucrose stream rather than a mixture of sugars. Proterro claims to be the only biofeedstock company that makes sucrose instead of extracting it from crops or deconstructing cellulosic materials.

The company said it was able to lower the cost of its sugar production to around 5c/lb compared to 14-15c/lb cellulosic sugars that are the goal of several developers.

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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