Price and market trends: US Renmatix, UPM to make sugar from wood for biochems

21 June 2013 10:00  [Source: ICB]

Process could provide feedstocks for downstream chemicals such as succinic acid

US-based cellulosic sugar producer Renmatix and Finnish pulp-and-paper firm UPM have reached a joint-development agreement under which they would optimise a process that produces sugars from wood.

Without a low-cost source of sugar, many of these industrial-microbiology companies will be uncompetitive, said Mike Hamilton, CEO of Renmatix. Developing that source of sugar is crucial for these companies to survive, whether they are producing renewable forms of existing petrochemicals or if they are introducing new materials to the market.


 Forests could provide a new chemical feedstock

Copyright: RexFeatures

Renmatix is among several companies that are trying to find the best way to convert biomass into downstream chemicals and fuels. Some companies are developing ways to gasify biomass to produce synthetic fuels.

Others are developing enzymes or acid-based processes that will produce sugars from the biomass. These sugars could then be fed to microorganisms, which would consume them to produce everything from ethanol to acrylic acid to succinic acid.

Instead of enzymes or chemicals, Renmatix's Plantrose process relies on supercritical water, which is raised to high temperatures and pressures. This water breaks apart the hemicellulose and cellulose in the biomass to produce C5 and C6 sugars.

What is left from the biomass is a nonsulphonated variant of lignin, which could have uses well beyond being burned as a fuel, Hamilton said.

Under the joint development agreement, UPM will provide various forms of hardwood from different locations, Hamilton said. Renmatix will then optimise its Plantrose process to UPM's feedstock, making sure it produces sugars with the right specifications for their intended downstream use.

Although the companies have not chosen a downstream chemical, candidates include succinic acid, acrylic acid and other organic acids, Hamilton said.

One of the barriers holding back the renewable chemical industry has been feedstock, Hamilton said. The Plantrose process will produce sugars at a lower cost than corn in the first commercial facility, the firm said.

By signing an agreement with UPM, Renmatix will be working with a large and established pulp-and-paper company, which has the relationships and knowledge to procure the feedstock needed to produce the sugars.

The demand for feedstock wood could benefit struggling pulp-and-paper mills in Europe and the US, Hamilton said.

"All of those pulp-and-paper mills that used to exist throughout the country are pretty much gone, and they are looking to be repurposed," he said. "I think this is a very powerful way to repurpose them in terms of making renewable chemicals."

The agreement between Renmatix and UPM comes as several companies are making large investments into renewable materials, essentially placing bets on which process will prevail as the most cost effective.

Hamilton highlights the agreements the company has already reached with Waste Management and BASF. "UPM took a good hard look at all the options they had," Hamilton said. They chose Renmatix.

"This is another form of validation that our technology, where we use essentially no significant consumables in the process and the reactions occur very quickly, is probably being by far the leading conversion technology to really drive the cellulosic sugar industry forward," he said.

"It is a really sustainable source of technology to take upstream biomass and connect it to downstream biochemicals and fuels."

By: Al Greenwood
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