Cobalt, Rhodia form bio n-butanol alliance in Brazil

By Bryan Sims | October 20, 2011

Mountain View, Calif.-based biobutanol developer Cobalt Technologies and international specialty chemical giant Rhodia have formed a strategic alliance to jointly develop biobased n-butanol biorefineries throughout Latin America. The facilities will deploy Cobalt’s technology for conversion of sugarcane bagasse into n-butanol for the chemicals and fuels markets. 

Under terms of the alliance, Cobalt and Rhodia will initially identify and develop options for deploying Cobalt’s technology at a sugar mill. Following this step, the partners will jointly develop a demonstration-scale facility that incorporates Cobalt’s technology at a location in Brazil to be determined. Following the demonstration plant, the parties intend to subsequently build multiple biorefineries co-located with sugar mills, first in Brazil and then subsequently in other Latin American countries. These commercial-scale facilities will be designed to produce 40,000 metric tons of n-butanol a year. 

According to Steve Shevick, Cobalt’s chief financial officer, the company has demonstrated experience using sugarcane bagasse and other forms of cellulosic material as feedstock for production of n-butanol at its pilot-scale unit in California. The company’s fermentation-based process employs a bacterial biocatalyst featuring an advanced bioreactor design.

“We have run some pretreatment tests and some follow-up fermentation in the lab and they turned out very positively,” Shevick told Biorefining Magazine. “We’re now ready to launch into a larger scale arrangement with Rhodia.”

The goal set as part of Cobalt’s alliance with Rhodia, according to Shevick, is to begin construction of the first demonstration facility by next year with construction of the first commercial-scale plant to begin in 2013, adding that commercial volumes of n-butanol are anticipated for launch by 2014.

In April, Rhodia was acquired by Belgian soda ash maker Solvay Group, making it the 10th largest chemical company in the world with average generated revenue of $18 billion annually. Structured around 11 global business units within five business clusters, Rhodia is a partner with major players in the automotive, electronics, flavors and fragrances, health, personal and home care markets, consumer goods and industrial markets.

One of those global business units, Coatis based in Brazil, develops oxygenated solvents and manufactures phenol-based products and derivatives specifically for the global market. To further expand its product range and provide fresh answers to the challenges posed by sustainable development, Rhodia’s Coatis recently launched its trademarked Augeo brand of solvents derived from renewable sources.

According to Vincent Kamel, president of Rhodia’s Coatis business unit in Brazil, the inclusion of Cobalt’s future biobased n-butanol will enlarge its Augeo range of biosourced solvents.

“We are convinced that Cobalt’s bagasse-based leading-edge technology will provide an unmatched cost advantage over the long-term,” Kamel said. “There is undoubtedly a huge potential for bio n-butanol in Latin America and beyond and we are looking forward to building a large international business with Cobalt.”

N-butanol is a widely used industrial chemical found in paints, lacquers and other surface coatings, with a global market estimated over $5 billion, approximately eight times the size of the market for isobutanol. Cobalt’s biobased n-butanol, according to Shevick, will be a valuable platform molecule for application in range of chemical markets in Brazil, including the plastics and synthetic rubber markets.

“There is a particular need in Brazil for biobutanol,” Shevick said. “It’s expensive down there and, in fact, the Brazilian government just slapped an import tariff on the producers of petroleum-based n-butanol before they can ship it into the country. We’ll look to satisfy the local market first and then expand out and ultimately look to make it a global business.”

Not only is Cobalt delving into the Latin American and global biobased n-butanol market, but the company is also conducting business in the U.S. Cobalt formed a partnership in April with Atlanta-based American Process Inc. The two parties are constructing a 470,000-gallon-per-year integrated cellulosic ethanol and biobased n-biotuanol demonstration biorefinery in Alpena, Mich. The plant is scheduled to be operational by second quarter next year.

Shevick also noted Cobalt’s strategic relationship with the U.S. Navy for the future commercial production jet fuel derived from its biobased n-butanol. He said the company has been working with a group in the Navy involved in the chemistry of converting Cobalt’s n-butanol into what Shevick describes “is truly a full-performance jet fuel”.

“We have produced test quantities of this jet fuel and we’re going through the ongoing ASTM certification process for the alcohol-to-jet fuel pathway,” Shevick said. “We’re climbing what they call the ‘fuel readiness ladder.’ We’re also looking for that as an area of expansion in the U.S. and, obviously, having an ally like the Navy is a tremendous asset.”