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Biobased Chemicals

Clariant struggles with cellulosic ethanol ramp-up

Firm records a $242 million asset loss on its demonstration plant in Romania

by Craig Bettenhausen
December 14, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 44


A Clariant factory.
Credit: Clariant
Clariant's demonstration plant for its Sunliquid cellulosic ethanol process is in southern Romania.

Clariant has recorded a $242 million reduction in the value of its cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant in Podari, Romania. The chemical maker says the accounting decision reflects a slower-than-expected ramp up to the facility’s 50,000-metric-ton-per-year nameplate capacity.

The write-off represents most of the asset value of the facility, into which the firm has invested around $258 million. However, Clariant says the plant and Sunliquid technology retain significant value for the company. This summer, Shell agreed to purchase the entire output of the Romania plant for several years, and Clariant has already sold five licenses to firms building other Sunliquid plants.

Clariant says in an email that an undersized feedstock pretreatment unit, which it has since expanded, was an early hurdle. More recently, the firm has been struggling with a bottleneck in on-site production of the fungal enzymes that degrade cellulose into fermentable sugars. The result has been lower-than-expected production, high consumable chemical costs, and excessive organic material in the plant’s wastewater. Work is underway to address the problems, which Clariant describes as within normal ranges for a first-of-its-kind industrial plant.

Cellulosic ethanol has a famously rocky history, with large-scale projects in the US from Poet, Abengoa, and DuPont opening to great fanfare, only to flounder and eventually shut down. Feedstock logistics and handling problems doomed previous attempts to commercialize cellulosic ethanol, says Runeel Daliah, a biofuel and decarbonization analyst at the consulting firm Lux Research, so it is interesting that the problems this time are in the main conversion processes instead.

Another challenge awaits cellulosic ethanol makers if they get production ironed out, Daliah says. Bans on new internal combustion engines and proliferation of electric vehicles are eating into the largest market for ethanol—as a gasoline blendstock. Long-term, sustainable aviation fuel and the chemical sector will be more important customers for low-carbon ethanol, which can be converted into ethylene and fed into existing chemical and fuel plants. “I think the chemical industry should seriously look at ethanol as a potential feedstock for the future,” he says.



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