Innovation Awards: Sugars solution from the wood

18 October 2013 10:23  [Source: ICB]

The award for Best Innovation by an SME has been won by Renmatix for its Plantrose bio-based technology for production of sugars from cellulosic materials

Philadelphia, US-based Renmatix has developed the Plantrose process technology that converts a wide range of non-food plant materials, starting with hardwoods, into cellulosic sugars for use in applications in biochemicals and fuels. The company was established in 2008 and has expanded rapidly, operating from two locations – in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Atlanta, Georgia. It has around 40 employees at each site.


 Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (left) with Renmatix CEO Mike Hamilton

That growth reflects not only the success of the technology, but the receptiveness of the company’s investors, partners and industries that support its approach to converting many forms of cellulosic biomass to a sugar platform that provides the chemical and fuel markets with a cost effective, renewable feedstock.

Renmatix CEO, Mike Hamilton says: “We’ve assembled a team of people here that have had enough experience in these industries that they truly understand the markets and are committed to a cost-effective platform as an alternative. I reference something called the ‘convergence of agriculture and chemistry’ – I like to call it a ‘farmistry industry’ or the ‘farmistry sector’.”

The Plantrose process was developed in response to the need to disassemble many forms of cellulosic biomass, but the platform had to be cost-effective compared with the current, entrenched fossil fuel-based products. Traditional bio-based routes struggle to compete due to slower reactions, or the need for costly consumables. Pursuit of an economic advantage led Renmatix to identify a supercritical hydrolysis pathway using water at very high temperatures and pressures to break down the biomass, to produce C5 (xylose) and C6 (glucose) sugars and clean lignin (which is presently used to provide thermal energy for the process, and has upside potential). Under these conditions, water can act as a powerful solvent and catalyst in rapid reactions. This pathway has been refined and perfected to create the Plantrose process.

Renmatix chief strategy officer, Tim Brown, says: “There are significant quantities of biomass available in many parts of the world, like Latin America and Asia, where an abundance of biomass is now burned. We can liberate more value from the biomass and our attractive economics have drawn interest from a large number of providers that are looking to convert sugars into a variety of fuels and chemicals. But what’s been missing is this economical route to large volumes of cellulosic sugars.”

Fred Moesler, Renmatix chief technical officer, adds: “We’re doing all of the hard work with water and heat and the process requires no catalysts or chemicals. We focused on hardwood as the initial biomass of choice, because in the US there was an established supply chain and we knew the economics and its pricing volatility. It seemed to be the most ideal alternative. So all early efforts concentrated on this, and we now continue highly focused on implementation.”

“If you have a sustainable, environmentally attractive pathway with equal or better economics than fossil fuel derived route, there will be a high demand for sure,” says Hamilton. “So I’m not surprised at the interest levels and think that it’s only going to accelerate. We’ve assembled a collection of investors in the company that are highly desirable and of strategic importance to us in a number of ways.” To date, the company has raised over $96m (€71m) in funding from strategic investors.

Of high significance to Hamilton is BASF’s $30m participation in March 2012 through its investment arm BASF Biorenewable Beteiligungs, which led a $75m C-round investment, joined by new and existing investors. “This was BASF’s largest non-purchase investment in a company, so we’re excited about them as leaders in the chemical industry and their desire to move their portfolio towards a renewable platform,” Hamilton says.

Also involved in the same investment round was Moscow’s Bright Capital. This increased Renmatix’s reach into Russia and provided an introduction to Moscow-based Vnesheconombank (Federal Foreign Development Bank) with which Renmatix has signed a memorandum of understanding. Vnesheconombank has extended a line of project debt financing of approximately $750m to Renmatix for helping its licensee partners fund construction of facilities that will use the Plantrose process and significant domestic forestry resources as feedstock.

UPM and Renmatix have become strategic partners in a development programme to optimise the Plantrose process taking advantage of UPM’s advantaged biomass position as one of the largest pulp and paper manufacturers in the world. Hamilton says that the partnership lends itself well to Renmatix in terms of a prospective licensee, and a significant capacity builder in the future.

Looking forward, the process can use a significant range of forms of biomass and this is where Renmatix intends to develop the technology. In output, the focus remains on producing C5 and C6 sugars, with the company collaborating with downstream partners to optimise the sugar output for specific organisms or processes to support a variety of final products/outputs.

Author: Mark Whitfield

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