Introducing Rennovia

Just got back from covering the Biobased Chemicals East conference in Boston and I hope you were able to follow my tweets via @ICISchemicalbiz or hashtag #ICIS.

I was planning to write about some of the presentations next week as I have a very tight deadline this week writing about green surfactants. But as I was eager to start some of them so I’ll post first about Rennovia since I was able to talk to them three weeks ago.

This California-based start-up company was founded last year by Symyx Technologies veterans Tom Boussie and Vince Murphy. I first heard about them in September 2009 when it was able to closed a $12m series A funding from 5AM Ventures and Versant Ventures.

Rennovia’s technology is focused more on its high throughput catalyst R&D infrastructure where it can fast develop multi-biobased product pipeline using any type of renewable-based feedstock.  Unlike most other green chemical companies embedded in fermentation processing (or in some cases hybrid chemical/biological processing), Rennovia is producing their drop-in bio-based chemicals only via chemical catalysis processing. So in short — plants, yes, but bugs, no.

“Not only can we leverage existing chemical manufacturing assets using catalytic chemical processes, it also has greater efficiency and scalability compared to fermentation processing,” said Robert Wedinger, Rennovia’s CEO. “We believe that high space-time yields, temperature and solvent flexibility, high carbon efficiencies and low cost of product isolation make chemo-catalysis preferable to fermentation for many large-volume chemical manufacturing processes.

According to Wedinger, over 90% of the existing petrochemical value chain are produced via chemo-catalytic processes. Products manufactured via this processing is more than 500bn lbs in size and worth more than $900bn/year, according to Rennovia.

Now there are other companies who are also using chemical catalysis using renewable feedstock. Rennovia pointed out that they are the only company so far who will produce large-volume drop-in chemicals unlike Virent and Range Fuels who are only producing cellulosic-based fuels via synthesis gas, and Segetis, Avantium and Rivertop who are also using chemical catalysis but will produce new molecules instead (L-ketals for Segetis, furanics for Avantium and glucaric acid for Rivertop).

So what is Rennovia producing?

Their first choice of product is adipic acid, and Wedinger said they already have product #2 in the pipeline. Here’s how their technology works:

Because of their high-throughput catalyst R&D platform, Rennovia said they were able to produce gram quantities of adipic acid only within 3 months of initiating the project starting December 2009. The company is moving in laboratory-pilot scale this December. 

Rennovia said there’s plenty of glucose to source their feedstock from and that there are opportunities for corn wet mill capacity to shift from high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) production to renewable chemical production instead without threatening food supply. The company’s strategy however is to diversify their feedstock source from the existing carbohydrate supply chains into non food-based raw materials when these supply chains mature enough.

As far as I know, Verdezyne is the only company right now who announced the same intention of going into biobased adipic acid, although Verdezyne’s processing is fermentation-based. Both companies pointed out during the conference the attractiveness of entering the adipic acid market given its growth rate of 3-5%/year and its 4.8bn lb/year size (according to Rennovia).

Wedinger also pointed out the possibility of now being able to create 100% bio-based nylon since adipic acid can be converted into adiponitrile, and this chemical can then be converted into caprolactam, the precursor to nylon 6, as well as be converted into HMDA (hexamethylene diamine), an intermediate used for manufacturing nylon 6,6 polymers.

“Adipic acid was once largely used to produce adiponitrile by dehydration of the diamide, but cheaper butadiene has kicked out this route into oblivion. Price of butadiene has been going up and the market has been volatile,” said Wedinger.

Just to make sure, I looked into ICIS data, and sure enough, current US butadiene price was around 94 cents/lb compared to the mid-20 cents/lb range in 2000. According to ICIS, US butadiene prices rose by 49% between January and July this year.

Back to Rennovia, the company plans to have a demonstration facility up and running by 2012/13 and a commercial scale plant with a capacity of between 300m-500m lb/year by 2014, both via joint ventures.

“We are already seeking scale-up and commercialisation partners across the adipic acid value chain,” Wedinger said.

Rennovia estimated their preliminary processing cost to be below cash cost of petroleum-based adipic acid processing with oil price at $60/bbl.

For it’s second product, the company said it is already exploring partnership opportunities for this development and plans to transition to process scale-up and lab-pilot development in 2011.

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