Cellulosic ethanol and biobased chemical developers unite

| April 19, 2011

When Vittorio Ghisolfi, president of M&G, said that his company would not limit its research and development efforts to cellulosic ethanol production, he wasn’t lying. “We are assessing biobased substitutes for a range of other petrochemical products and chemical intermediates,” he said recently, after M&G broke ground on a 13 MMgy cellulosic ethanol facility in northwestern Italy. Now, the Tortona, Italy-based company has partnered with Genomatica to combine M&G’s proprietary process for converting biomass into fermentable sugars with Genomatica’s system for making Bio-BDO, an intermediate chemical that can be used to make everything from spandex to running shoes and car parts.

Using the same technology that has already been tested at a pilot-scale facility in Rivalta, Italy, and the same technology that will be employed at the future M&G cellulosic ethanol facility, Genomatica will have exclusive rights to the PROESA process created by Chemtex, M&G’s global engineering arm that specializes in biofuels, renewable chemicals, polymers and other areas throughout Italy, the U.S., China and India.

“The PROESA technology is a unique biomass pretreatment and hydrolysis process for converting cellulosic feedstock’s into fermentable sugars, which can be converted to bio-BDO,” Christophe Schilling, CEO of Genomatica told Biorefining Magazine. The pilot-scale facility in Rivalta will be the production site for Genomatica starting in 2012, and Chemtex will be the future engineering partner for the design and build out of Genomatica’s planned commercial-scale facility.

Although the production of Bio-BDO is not scheduled for production at the facility in Italy until 2012, Genomatica already has plans to begin producing in the U.S. at a Tate & Lyle corn wet mill in Illinois, this year. Genomatica’s newest partnership shows a “strong global demand for renewable chemicals,” Schilling said, as well as “feedstock flexibility in the chemical industry.” As the renewable chemical industry grows, so does Genomatica. The company, Schilling said, is growing on a number of fronts to secure the future of BDO as well as other chemicals still under development internally. Today, the company has 70 employees, and the ability to utilize multiple feedstock sources to produce BDO is important to the company.

“We have partnered with some of the best in the business to ensure feedstock flexibility across many regions, using conventional sugars like sucrose and dextrose, cellulosic sugars from biomass and eventually syngas,” Schilling said. “The preferred feedstock supply will vary by region, but diversification is key globally. While M&G is based in Italy, this technology can be deployed globally, and we intend to make it available worldwide.”

Guido Ghisolfi, vice president of corporate operations and research at M&G, said that the combination of Genomatica’s production process and the PROESA technology will help the product create a faster worldwide adoption. “The European market is particularly keen to move to biobased products,” he said, “and Genomatica’s strategy of greening the industry at its source offers today’s industry a painless and economically beneficial way to make it happen.”