Companies Advance Biobased Chemicals | April 25, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 17 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 17 | p. 8 | News of The Week
Issue Date: April 25, 2011

Companies Advance Biobased Chemicals

Cleantech: Start-ups are poised to harness cellulosic feedstocks
Department: Business
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: biobased chemicals, cellulosic ethanol
Cobalt Technologies has developed a bacterium that ferments a variety of biomass-derived sugars.
Credit: Cobalt Technologies
Cobalt Technologies has developed a bacterium that ferments a variety of biomass-derived sugars.
Credit: Cobalt Technologies

Biobased chemical production is taking a step forward with the announcement of two new projects—both involving venture-capital-backed start-ups—to make chemicals out of nonfood cellulosic biomass.

Cobalt Technologies is joining with the process development firm American Process to build a demonstration-scale n-butyl alcohol plant in Alpena, Mich. Genomatica, meanwhile, has formed a partnership with the Italian plastics maker Mossi & Ghisolfi to make 1,4-butanediol in Italy.

High-volume industrial chemicals including lactic acid, propanediol, and citric acid are already manufactured by fermenting sugars derived from sugarcane or corn, and several companies are pursuing a new generation of sugar-based chemicals such as isobutyl alcohol, succinic acid, and acrylic acid. To date, though, development of chemicals from cellulosic feedstocks has lagged.

Cobalt plans to jump-start the process by piggybacking on a cellulosic ethanol project that American Process has already begun. Using $22 million in grants from the Department of Energy and the State of Michigan, American Process intends to open an ethanol plant early next year that’s based on a hemicellulosic waste stream from a neighboring wood-paneling firm.

The plant will switch to making n-butyl alcohol in mid-2012, the partners say, producing more than 3 million lb annually. Key to the process, says Cobalt Chief Financial Officer Steven Shevick, is a Clostridium bacterium that ferments five-carbon sugars more efficiently than do conventional yeast and Escherichia coli.

Similarly, Genomatica is taking advantage of a cellulosic ethanol project that is already under way at Mossi & Ghisolfi’s Crescentino site. M&G expects to be producing 88 million lb per year of ethanol by the first half of 2012. Some of the biomass feedstock will be diverted to 1,4-butanediol production later that year.

Both deals are evidence that attention among developers of cellulosic biomass is shifting from ethanol to higher-value industrial chemicals, notes Erik Hoover, an analyst with Cleantech Data. The deals demonstrate momentum, but Hoover still sees many unknowns. “The opportunity for cellulosic biomass is enormous—if a hundred ‘ifs’ are satisfied,” he says.

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