It’s one step forward and two steps back for the cellulosic ethanol business. As Clariant pushes ahead with plans to make ethanol from agricultural waste in Europe, two other chemical firms—DuPont and Beta Renewables—are pulling back from the technology.
On Oct. 31, Clariant announced plans to build a cellulosic ethanol plant in Romania based on its Sunliquid process. The Swiss specialty chemical company said the plant will be a flagship facility intended to demonstrate the technology’s competitiveness and support a licensing strategy.
That was pretty much DuPont’s plan when it decided to build a cellulosic ethanol facility in Nevada, Iowa. The plant, which opened in October 2015 at a cost of more than $200 million, was intended to be the first of a string of facilities that would use DuPont enzymes and yeast to turn corn cobs, stems, and leaves into ethanol.
But on Nov. 2, the same day that DowDuPont released its first quarterly earnings report as a combined company, DuPont disclosed plans to sell the business. “While we still believe in the future of cellulosic biofuels, we have concluded it is in our long-term interest to find a strategic buyer for our technology, including the Nevada, Iowa, biorefinery,” DuPont said.
Separately, Beta Renewables, an Italian cellulosic ethanol producer, is in trouble following the bankruptcy of its parent company, Mossi & Ghisolfi. The newsletter Biofuels Digest reports that Beta Renewables’ plant in Crescentino, Italy, the world’s first large cellulosic ethanol facility, has been shut down.
Late last year, another bankrupt company, Abengoa, sold its cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kan., to the start-up firm Synata Bio, which plans to convert it into a natural-gas-based chemicals and fuels facility.
But it’s not all bad news for the industry. Clariant is investing in Europe. And the third big U.S. cellulosic ethanol maker, a Poet-DSM joint venture in Emmetsburg, Iowa, claims to have solved a major challenge in pretreating cellulosic feedstock so it can be attacked by enzymes and yeast.
“Where others have seen challenges, we have persevered,” says Poet-DSM board member Atul Thakrar. The firm says it anticipates increased production levels in 2018.