InterviewUS Renmatix, BASF to scale up biomass-to-sugar tech

18 December 2013 16:04  [Source: ICIS news]

(Clarification:  Recasts paragraph 10 regarding extraction volumes)

HOUSTON (ICIS)--Renmatix and BASF have signed a joint-development agreement to scale up the former's technology to extract sugars from woody biomass, the US-based company said on Wednesday.

Unlike other processes that rely on enzymes or acid, Renmatix's technology uses supercritical water to extract C5 and C6 sugars from biomass.

Under Renmatix's agreement with BASF, the German producer would consider licensing the company's technology, allowing BASF to build a plant to supply feedstock sugar for renewable chemicals production, said Mike Hamilton, Renmatix CEO. He made his comments in an interview with ICIS.

Sugars are the prime feedstock for most renewable chemicals, making them crucial for production. Without a low-cost source of sugar, many industrial biotechnology companies will be uncompetitive.

To provide that sugar, companies are developing technologies that would extract the feedstock from biomass.

The challenge is that these biomass-based sugars are difficult to extract.

Biomass is made up of lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose, and these components need to be separated. Afterwards, the hemicellulose and cellulose need to be broken up to produce C5 and C6 sugars.

Some companies are using enzymes or acid-based processes to extract the sugars.

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 the C5 and C6 sugars.

The Plantrose technology can extract sugar from more than half of the dry weight of biomass, Hamilton said. What is left is mostly lignin, which can be burned as a fuel.

"We're using a very large portion of the dry material," he said.

Crucially, the Plantrose technology is not high cost like gasification. Some technologies rely on gasification to produce synthesis gas (syngas), which can then be fed to microorganisms as a feedstock.

Plantrose is also free of the enzymes or acid used by other processes.

"We are not adding any significant consumables to the conversion cost," Hamilton said. In fact, the moisture contained in the biomass is actually used in the process.

Looking ahead, the Plantrose process should be competitive with corn and with naphtha-derived pathways, Hamilton said.

Corn, of course, is a foodstuff, and BASF wanted to rely on cellulosic material since it is nonedible, Hamilton said. This, in fact, is the theme for many consumer-goods companies that are the ultimate buyers of materials made from renewable feedstocks.

"They want to be in markets where they still serve their renewable material needs, but they do not want to be diverting that starting feedstock from food production," Hamilton said.

In fact, BASF noted this aspect of the Plantrose process in a statement it issued about the joint-development agreement.

BASF could use the sugars to produce a number of renewable chemicals.

Although no statements had been made regarding possible downstream biochemicals, BASF has previously announced a separate project to produce 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3-HP), a bio-based building block for acrylic acid.

BASF's other renewable chemical projects include butanediol (BDO) and succinic acid.

BASF also has worked with Renmatix in the past. In early 2012, BASF announced that it is investing $30m (€22m) in the company.

In addition to BASF, Renmatix also has an agreement with Virent, in which the two are cooperating on the conversion of cellulosic sugars to renewable products.

Specifically, the sugars will be used by Virent to produce paraxylene (PX). PX is one of the two main feedstocks for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used to make plastic bottles.

In addition, Renmatix reached a joint-development agreement with Finnish pulp-and-paper firm UPM. Under it, UPM will provide various forms of hardwood from different locations. 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.  

Renmatix has also reached a joint-development agreement with Waste Management, under which the companies will explore the feasibility of converting waste into sugars.

“We're really proud of the assembly of that quartet of relationships we have,” Hamilton said. “Those are all powerful relationships for us to assemble value chains which are competitive long-term with oil derived pathways to get those materials which are currently in use”

($1 = €0.73)

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By: Al Greenwood
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