Cobalt, Rhodia to build n-butanol demonstration plant in Brazil

By Luke Geiver | August 08, 2012

The greatest achievement to date by Cobalt Technologies, according to Andy Meyer, senior vice president of business development for the California-based n-butanol producer, has been the partnership with global chemical supplier Rhodia. “It represents the validation of the technology by a top 10 global chemical producer and substantiates all the work and R&D that went into the technology,” Meyer said.

Through a joint development that formed in 2011, Cobalt and Rhodia have partnered on a demonstration facility in Brazil that will convert sugarcane bagasse and other non-food feedstocks into biobased n-butanol, a product applicable for industrial chemicals used in paints, adhesives, inks and other solvents. According to Meyer, Rhodia completed a detailed feasibility study prior to the decision to move forward with the demonstration unit. Work at the demonstration facility will begin this month. By early 2013 the partners hope to move to a Brazilian sugar mill site to complete further validation.

“We are convinced that Cobalt’s technology will provide an unmatched cost advantage over the long term,” according to Vincent Kamel, president of Rhodia Coatis business unit. Meyer said Cobalt’s technology offers a 40-60 percent cost advantage versus the petroleum alternative. Cobalt can extract low-cost, non-food sugars that are not subject to price volatility or availability swings, he added, a critical component of the cost savings Cobalt’s technology can offer. “This exposure has been the Achilles heel of industrial biotechnology until now.”

Meyer also said the Cobalt technology platform that Rhodia will test in Brazil can be integrated into existing mills without disrupting existing business. At the demonstration facility and at any future mill sites, he said, “no additional equipment, outside the scope of Cobalt’s technology, is required for integration,” adding that both the sugar and ethanol portions of the mill will not be disrupted.

The technology developed by Cobalt relies on a proprietary biocatalyst, an advanced bioreactor and the use of low cost feedstocks such as bagasse, a resource typically used by Brazilian sugar mills to produce power or steam at their existing sites, or, burned for disposal purposes. Following the completion of testing at the Brazilian demonstration facility, the partners intend to apply the technology in Latin American sites.

In addition to the partnership with Rhodia, Cobalt is also working with American Process Inc. to add n-butanol production to API’s Alpena, Michigan cellulosic ethanol demonstration facility.