Supplying Affordability

Why access to biomass and their sugar content don’t have to cost a fortune
By Bryan Sims | March 18, 2011

For the past five years, Corvallis, Ore.-based Trillium FiberFuels had sourced its biochemicals from big chemical suppliers such as Sigma Chemical Co., to conduct its experiments on biomass utilization. But, as the firm went from from bench-scale to pilot stage, the cost of buying mass quantities of the materials needed, such as xylose, became increasingly expensive, sometimes running up to tens of thousands of dollars, according to Chris Beatty, founder and president.

“Like everybody in this area, we were buying xylose from Sigma Chemical Co., and it costs $160 per kilogram,” he says. “When you start doing hundreds of kilograms at a time, it becomes an untenable expense.”

As a means to provide sugars and other biobased materials at more competitive prices, Beatty launched Cascade Analytical Reagents and Biochemicals, a Web-based business that offers about 15 products, ranging from biochemicals to various forms of biomass such as rice hulls and wheat straw. Beatty says he works with chemical suppliers to independently analyze and certify Trillium’s chemical products for quality, which helps keep prices down. By buying in bulk directly from a supplier, Beatty says he’s able to reduce costs by 25 to 50 percent, depending on the product.

“Sometimes you don’t need 100 tons, you need a kilogram to do your experiment and those are some things you can’t buy from the big chemical suppliers,” Beatty explains, adding that CARB offers the same, if not more of, what large chemical suppliers would offer. CARB also offers free samples before customers commit to buying products.

“We do more analysis of the materials we sell, and give more data to the customer than the big suppliers do,” he says. “They say it’s 99 percent sugar, but they don’t tell you what else is in there. We needed to know that for our research and other people do too. We’re trying to give the customer more information for a cheaper price.”

Another reason Trillium launched CARB was to provide researchers affordable access to rare sugars, such as xylulose, an intermediate product in the metabolism of xylose, which can cost more than $500 a gram, Beatty says. “It hasn’t been investigated as much as it could be because it’s so expensive,” he says.

According to Beatty, CARB has already generated interest within the biomass research community, and plans to add more products to CARB based on those that are in high demand. 

—Bryan Sims