My ICIS Chemical Business article about the increasing use of biomass feedstock in chemical production is out now (free access!) and one of the companies featured on the story is NY-based Anellotech, which is developing aromatics that use biomass feedstock.
I had the opportunity to interview Anellotech CEO David Sudolsky in December as their BTA – Biomass to BTX (benzene, toluene and xylenes) technology really piqued my interests ever since I’ve heard about it at the Biobased Chemicals East conference in September.
In my recent biomass article, consultant Mark Morgan of Nexant pointed out that in terms of development, biomass-based hydrocarbons such as olefins and aromatics are not as popular as oxygen-containing intermediates (such as succinic acid, n-butanol, adipic acid, etc) mostly because the former generally required another step (such as oxygen removal usually by a petrochemical process) after converting biomass into an oxygen intermediate.
Sudolsky pointed out that Anellotech’s technology converts the biomasss into an intermediate from which oxygen can be removed, and then does this removal all in the same reactor in a one step process.
Anellotech says it can easily produce high-volume BTX and even olefins from cellulosic biomass using catalytic pyrolysis. The company’s patented process and catalyst technology was developed by Anellotech founder George Huber, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Unlike gasification, which results in a mixture of carbon and hydrogen called synthesis gas (syngas), pyrolysis turns biomass into liquid fuels in a single-step economical process at a very large scale, says Sudolsky. The company uses a single-step fluid-bed reactor (no biological processing involved here) and that its inexpensive and recyclable zeolite catalysts is said to be similar to widely-used catalysts in the petroleum refining industry.
The patented process can currently create 50 gallons of BTX per tonne of biomass. Anellotech aims to produce 85 gal/tonne in the future. By-products of the pyrolysis process include water, as well as CO2 and carbon monoxide gases that are reusable.
“The energy value of a tonne of waste wood, for example, was probably $20 and our process is economical up to beyond $100/tonne. We’re targeting to compete with oil priced at $30/bbl assuming no tax credits or subsidies,” said Sudolsky.
Anellotech estimates value of the global BTX market of 30bn gal in 2006 at $100bn. The market is expected to grow at 4-4.5%/year, or 1.2bn gal/year. The company expects to have a small-scale commercial plant with a capacity of 8m gal/year to be completed by late 2014. Larger plants will follow, according to Sudolsky.
“We are on track with our commercial yield goal. Our key priority is raising Series A venture financing. We are also looking to bring in a strategic partner to accelerate the process commercialization, as well as line up the first customers for the technology,” he says.
Anellotech is looking into collaborating and contracting with feedstock developers and suppliers. Sudolsky said the company is currently in discussion with potential partners who wants to be involved early on so they can potentially have the right to get the first plant. The company is looking into both joint ventures and licensing.
“We see multiple licensing and rapid uptake of licensing because unlike biotechnological processing, our technology does not need specialized equipments and technical people. The skill set needed to build and operate our plants is not that different from what the petrochemical industry already has,” said Sudolsky.
As for feedstock, the company said they can use and have been working with any type of lignocellulosic biomass such as sawdust, sugarcane bagasse, corn stover [and] energy crops.
“Because of the higher profitability coming from our process, we can afford to contract and pay higher prices for feedstock. The paper industry is currently operating on this kind of business model,” added Sudolsky.