Renmatix poised to become sugar supplier to biorefining industry

By Bryan Sims | September 29, 2011

Could sugar become the new oil? Mike Hamilton, CEO of Kennesaw, Ga.-based biorefining start-up Renmatix, certainly thinks it very well could be someday and his company may soon be the solution for making that a reality. “We want to change the world,” he said during a webcast roundtable discussion in King of Prussia, Pa., that also featured John Doerr, partner at investment firm Kleiner Perkins Claufield & Byers and backer of Renmatix, Paul Bryan, head of the U.S. DOE’s Biomass Program, John Melo, CEO of Amyris and newly-elected member to Renmatix’s board of directors and Vic Prabhu, head of strategy ventures for DuPont’s Biosciences Division. The participants discussed the growing importance of industrial sugars across the global economy and how Renmatix’s disruptive technology could change the biorefining landscape.

After operating in stealth mode the last few years, Hamilton told Biorefining Magazine that he envisions his young company becoming a premier supplier of affordable and abundant cellulosic sugars for biorefining companies focused on the production of advanced biofuel and biobased chemicals.

“Our goal is a bit broader than that,” Hamilton said, a former Rohm & Haas executive. “It’s not only to be the provider of fermentable sugars to renewable companies that are making fuels or chemicals, but to do so with economics most importantly on our minds. Given our technology and our pathway we believe we have the lowest cost process for producing cellulosic sugars and, what’s equally exciting, is that we can do it right here in the U.S.”

Renamtix’s commercial approach to producing cellulosic sugars cost-effectively lies at the heart of its unique process technology. Specifically, Rematix employs a patent-pending supercritical hydrolysis route—trademarked the Plantrose process—that utilizes water at elevated temperatures and pressures that can quickly solubilize both C5 and C6 sugars from virtually any nonfood-based lignocellulosic biomass all while separating out lignin. Unlike enzymatic hydrolysis or acid hydrolysis conversion routes that typically require expensive enzymes or harsh chemicals to degrade biomass to sugars, Hamilton said the firm’s Plantrose process works more efficiently and quicker than the former processes because it essentially “tricks” the water to act as a solvent.

“We just don’t believe the two aforementioned processes were economically attractive long-term,” Hamilton said. “Just by using water to drive the solubilization of the cellulose allows our reaction to occur quickly and cost-effectively. That’s the beauty of the reaction we have in the technology that we use in this supercritical hydrolysis pathway.”

While the supercritical state of matter has long been utilized in other industrial processes, such as coffee decaffeination and pharmaceutical applications, Hamilton said supercritical water had never successfully yielded sugar from biomass at significant scale like this before.

Currently, Renmatix has an active development program with an operating demonstration-scale production facility in Kennesaw, Ga., that’s capable of converting three dry tons of biomass to sugars daily. To further support the company’s growth plans, Renmatix aims to commence developing a technical and business operations center in King of Prussia, located in the center of Pennsylvania’s burgeoning hub of innovation where some of the world’s renowned industrial companies conduct their biorefining segments such as DuPont and AirProducts to name a few. While there, Hamilton said he anticipates the company will produce about 100,000 metric tons of sugar derived initially from woody biomass. Hamilton added that King of Prussia will become the template for developing additional commercial-scale facilities in the future across the country.

“There’s definitely a talent source as well as pharmaceutical skill sets that we can tap into here,” Hamilton said.

Acknowledging that Renmatix is only one link within the biomass value chain, Hamilton understands the company can’t achieve its short and long-term objectives alone. Hamilton said Renmatix’s business model creates a number of opportunities to collaborate with partners, both in rural communities as well as with other players in the biorefining industry. While Renmatix’s Plantrose process can process a range of different biomasses, Hamilton said Renmatix plans to deploy its technology based at locations initially where hardwood biomass is abundant and in close proximity—about 75-100 miles—where biomass conversion can occur. He said the company could potentially collocate with biomass suppliers that could utilize its Plantrose process on site such as at timber mills.

“The beauty of that is the jobs don’t get exported,” Hamilton said. “That’s the power of the model as well, which is attractive, especially for manufacturing in particular.”

Long-term, Hamilton envisions Renmatix’s Plantrose sugars becoming more attractive than corn-based sugar and competitive with sugarcane-based sugar out of Brazil, which is considered the global benchmark.

“We just want to continue to be the enabler for this renewable fuels and chemicals industry by offering the most favorable economics to our customer set,” Hamilton said. “It’s the key piece of the puzzle no one has figured out yet.”

To put it simply, “This isn’t a dream,” he added. “This is a reality.”