Sugar Rush

The race is on to commercialize low-cost, high-quality sugars from nonfood sources
By Bryan Sims | April 27, 2012

The biorefining industry is hungry for a low-cost, high-quality and readily available supply of sugar feedstock from nonfood biomass sources. A number of pure-play sugar technology developers and manufacturers like Renmatix, Virdia (formerly HCL CleanTech), Sweetwater Energy, Comet Biorefining Inc., Proterro and others are deeply involved in this specialized sector, jockeying for position in the sugar feedstock supply chain to feed demand. Collectively, they bring a unique set of core strengths, processes and long-term business approaches to deliver a consistent, readily convertible sugar feedstock that can compete on price and quality with crude oil feedstock for petroleum fuels and food-based industrial sugars from corn and sugarcane.

“Everyone realizes they need a nonfood cellulosic option that is economically disruptive, attractive and competitive with the alternatives in use today, be it either oil or otherwise,” says Mike Hamilton, CEO of King of Prussia, Pa.-based Renmatix. “Having an economic sugar is really the enabler behind meeting consumer downstream biorefining and government support for displacing petroleum-derived fuels, chemicals and other products.” Renmatix employs a patented, two-step, supercritical fluid hydrolysis technology platform—trademarked the Plantrose process—that can efficiently extract and solubilize C5 (hemicellulose) and C6 (cellulose) sugars from a variety of lignocellulosic biomass such as wood or agricultural residues when subjected to water at high temperature and pressure, all the while separating out the lignin. Renmatix owns and operates a demonstration-scale production facility located in Kennesaw, Ga., capable of converting 3 dry tons per day of biomass into fermentation-ready sugars for trial testing to potential customers. Renmatix also operates a pilot plant in Kennesaw. In January, BASF invested $30 million in Renmatix to support its scale-up activities.

Hamilton, a former Rohm and Haas executive, tells Biorefining Magazine that his company will continue improving the economics of its Plantrose process while working toward its first commercial-scale facility, which is expected to produce 100,000 metric tons annually. An announcement on the commercial facility location is expected later this year.  “There’s a limitless demand for renewable materials,” Hamilton says, but the material has to make economic sense. “Until today, there really haven’t been a lot of cellulosic options that are economically attractive,” he says. “Being able to provide sugars at economically attractive price points is really going to allow those things to occur.”

London, Ontario-based Comet Biorefining Inc. utilizes a unique biomass pretreatment process and enzymes to isolate and extract sugar, primarily monomeric glucose, and its lignin constituents. CEO and founder Andrew Richard, former chief technology officer at Mascoma, says Comet has pushed the envelope on biomass pretreatment to the point it doesn’t consider the process “pretreatment” anymore.

“We call it activation now because we think that more closely describes what we’re trying to do,” Richard says. “We do use enzymes downstream from the activation process, but we use them at significantly lower levels than what most people would talk about because of the benefits of the activation process that we use, and we use very simple equipment to get there.”

The impetus behind the company’s focus on biomass conversion to sugars came in 2009 when Richard recognized the burden of feedstock aggregation, transportation and conversion to usable sugars. Richard says Comet formed to specifically address this glaring deficiency within the feedstock supply chain to help ease that burden.

“The limitations,” Richard explains, “are around the fact that these systems and plants tend to be so complex that you need to make them large in order to get economies of scale. When you do that, you need to bring in thousands of tons of biomass in a day, and you end up with larger supply radiuses and end up with a large capital expenditure (CAPEX) because you’re either transporting half water, if it’s wood, or mostly air if it’s an agricultural material.”

He says Comet set out to tackle all the drivers necessary to get to low CAPEX and operating expenses (OPEX). “We’re taking on inconsistent feedstock that changes every day,” Richard says, “and it has to be a relatively simple process that gets you to some useful intermediate product, which, for us, is cellulosic sugar.”

As sugar technology developers continue to optimize their processes, finding the right balance between ideal price points and delivering a high-quality sugar product to downstream customers is paramount because, in a customer-driven enterprise, not every downstream conversion process relies solely on one uniform type of sugar, says Andrew Held, director of feedstock development for Madison, Wis.-based Virent Energy Systems. Essentially, each sugar product has to be customized to meet strict feedstock specifications. Virent employs a patented catalytic BioForming process technology at its 10,000 gallon per year demonstration facility in Madison, which converts soluble sugars from various biomass stocks into a range of advanced drop-in biofuels such as biogasoline and light and heavy diesel fractions, plus chemicals.

“I think what’s interesting in this space is, like in the commercial sugars markets, there are existing contracts that already have quality specifications adherent to it,” Held says. “So, when you see the moving market price you’re at least getting a known commodity. I think it’s fair to say that in the case of cellulosic sugars overall, the market is quite a bit less mature at the moment.”

Since January 2011, Virent and Danville, Va.-based Virdia have been working together as part of a grant from BIRD (Binational Industrial Research and Development) Energy, a U.S.-Israel joint renewable energy development funded by the U.S. DOE, the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructures and the BIRD Foundation. In March, both companies announced the successful conversion of cellulosic pine tree sugars to drop-in gasoline and biojet fuel within the BIRD grant project. Additionally, Virdia has been working with biotech outfit LS9 since last year as part of a $9 million DOE grant to demonstrate an integrated process that converts biomass into renewable diesel and other fuels and chemicals. “You need to provide [sugar] substrates with the right fermentability,” explains Philippe Lavielle, CEO of Virdia. “You also need to provide substrates with high monosaccharide sugars with no inhibitors, no impurities and you need to provide the right concentration as well. What you don’t want is a sugar product that’s dilute with a combination of monosaccharide and polysaccharide sugars and inhibitors.”

If enough ready-to-use sugar feedstock volumes enter the market to meet high demand, its developers understand that a distributed, modular approach is the most practical avenue to achieve economies of scale. “If you’re going to be cost-competitive, you’ve got to get your [feedstock] logistics way down,” says Arunas Chesonis, CEO of Rochester, N.Y.-based Sweetwater Energy. “The ability for us to have a decentralized model with smaller [manufacturing] units allows us to be both feedstock-flexible by region, and it allows us to grow with that customer in the appropriate fashion.”

Sweetwater Energy operates a pilot facility in Rochester that supplies sugar samples to its downstream customers. A demonstration-scale sugar processing facility is scheduled to be operational this summer. “We expect our first commercial facilities to be installed throughout the U.S. in 2013,” Chesonis says.

According to Richard, Comet Biorefining’s strategy is centered on employing a licensing model as opposed to a build-own-operate (BOO) strategy. Last year, the company constructed a sugar toll processing plant in Southwestern Ontario and signed an exclusive agreement with Fulton Engineered Specialties Inc., which will provide turnkey construction and installation services of Comet’s modular cellulosic sugar process systems on an exclusive basis. “We see not only supplying the technology to produce sugars, but also the modules to produce them because when you talk about small, distributed plants, they need to be very low in capital cost,” Richard says.

Lavielle says Virdia will employ a BOO model and leverage existing infrastructure and feedstock logistic assets at brownfield sites, at least for its first few commercial facilities, he notes. “The scale will be much bigger than the first commercial plant, starting at about 500,000 tons per year,” Lavielle says. “The next step in the value chain for us would be to plug in biorefining companies that might be interested in co-location activities with our future commercial sugar processing facilities.”

Proterro Inc., a venture-backed startup headquartered in Princeton, N.J., is taking a different approach using a noncellulosic material as its starting point to produce sugar. The company is optimizing a patent-pending biosynthetic process that combines an engineered photosynthetic microorganism, a cyanobacteria, with an advanced high-density, modular solid-phase bioreactor to produce its trademarked sucrose end product, called Protose. While Proterro is open to all options, CEO Kef Kasdin says an ideal approach that her young company will likely pursue is a joint-venture model with partners, such as existing ethanol plants or biobased chemical companies, to deploy its novel sugar processing module units on a host site, leveraging existing infrastructure elements such as carbon dioxide to feed its process. “We use up a lot less space than sugarcane,” Kasdin says. “If you look at Brazil today, they basically have a co-location strategy. They have acres upon acres of sugarcane that are feeding ethanol plants. We would fit into that model very well.”

Author: Bryan Sims
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine
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