Xylitol breakthrough discussed at FEW conference

By Ron Kotrba | June 28, 2011

Food science polyols are a $1.5 billion market, according to David Demirjian, president and CEO of zuChem Inc. Demirjian spoke at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo in Indianapolis about his company’s work to break into that mega market.

He said the market is dominated by sorbitol ($750 million), marinol ($80 million), erythritol and others ($370 million), and xylitol ($125 million), adding that the xylitol share is expected to grow by three-fold—but holding it back is its limited feedstock supply, which is primarily birch wood, and the price fluctuations that go along with it.

“It’s typically produced through chemical hydrogenation [of birch wood],” he said, adding that zuChem’s approach is through simple fermentation.

ZuChem’s goals are to make xylitol but eliminate or reduce the unwanted production of arabitol, a fermentation inhibitor that “dramatically changes properties of xylitol.” The company also intends to tap into the vastly abundant biomass resources, rather than just birch wood, to produce the polyol. To make it economical, Demirjian said they would have to surpass the 100 grams per liter threshold, a goal the company has achieved.

The process involves conversion of xylose to xylitol, similar to making arabitol from arabinose, but using a xylose-specific reductase that fortuitously produces less than 1 percent arabitol. .

The company has also looked at the conversion of arabinose to xylitol in three steps.

ZuChem has achieved 115g/l in less than 15 hours, with more than 85 percent overall yield.

Eight patents have either been issued already or zuChem is working to get issued right now, Demirjian said, and the company is working on a broad license strategy with its first production agreement—an international one—ongoing.

“Our first customers are in hand,” he said.