NY Times – A Georgia company says it has overcome a major roadblock in turning agricultural waste into vehicle fuel and other useful chemicals by experimenting with a technology that treats the waste with compressed water heated to very high temperatures. The goal is to accomplish something that has eluded a dozen companies in recent years despite big government inducements: to commercialize a technology for making use of cellulosic biomass, or wood chips, switchgrass and the nonedible parts of crops.
Renmatix, the leading producer of cellulosic sugars, today unveiled the PlantroseTM process, the company’s commercial approach to producing sugars more cheaply than ever before. Access to non food derived low-cost industrial sugars, the foundation of the emerging bioindustrial economy, will trigger a dramatic shift from petroleum-based fuels and chemicals to cost-effective biobased alternatives.
At Renmatix’s demonstration facility in Kennesaw, Georgia, the company has already scaled its process to convert three dry tons of woody biomass to sugars daily.
PlantroseTM and Supercritical Hydrolysis
Renmatix’s PlantroseTM process is the first to break down cellulose at industrial scale through supercritical hydrolysis, which utilizes water at elevated temperatures and pressures to quickly solubilize cellulose. The supercritical state of matter has long been utilized in industrial processes including coffee decaffeination and pharmaceutical applications.
Before the arrival of the Plantrose process, supercritical water had never successfully yielded sugar from biomass at significant scale. The process breaks down a wide range of non-food biomass in seconds, uses no significant consumables and produces much of its own process energy. Current methods of breaking down biomass require expensive enzymes or harsh chemicals, and can take up to three days to yield sugars. With its water-based approach, Renmatix is able to provide cellulosic sugar affordably and on large-scale.
“Sugar has game-changing potential for the bio-based fuels and chemicals market,” said John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Renmatix board member. “The Renmatix breakthrough enables access to affordable non-food based sugar on an industrial scale.”
Doerr, who earned his reputation with early investments in Amazon, Google, Sun Microsystems and other tech giants, led today’s discussion on the role of sugar in scaling bio-based fuels and chemicals. The panel comprised a broad representation of bioindustry leaders: Paul Bryan, head of the Department of Energy’s Biomass Program; John Melo, CEO of Amyris, a synthetic biology company working to reduce the cost of lower carbon, second generation, biofuels and chemicals; and DuPont’s industrial biosciences strategy leader, Vik Prabhu. An intimate group of bioindustry peers joined Renmatix, Governor Tom Corbett and local Pennsylvania partners for the roundtable discussion and technology reveal.
“In the twentieth century, petroleum was the basis for making materials, chemicals and fuels. In the twenty-first century, sugar is replacing petroleum as the raw material for those industries,” said Mike Hamilton, CEO of Renmatix. “Renmatix will provide those sugars faster and cheaper than anyone else, and our move to the Greater Philadelphia area will enables us to attract the talented material science and engineering talent we’ll need to scale rapidly.”