Renewable Feedstocks are in the Bag

Chemical firms show growing interest in bio-based production.

By Bill Gerards, Contributing Editor

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The joint venture, named BioAmber, aims to prove the technology works on an industrial scale at a biorefinery at Pomacle that will be expanding its already diverse mix of products. The biorefinery complex incorporates wheat and sugar-beet processing facilities, a cogeneration unit and an ethanol plant — whose net output of CO2 will go to the succinic acid plant, whose fermentation technology consumes CO2, says Dunuwila. The demonstration plant for succinic acid production is expected to come online in September 2009.

BioAmber’s manufacture of succinic acid from sucrose or glucose fermentation uses patented technology under an exclusive license from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Michigan State University. The succinic acid can be converted into a number of products including 1,4 butanediol, which is expected to enjoy growing demand.

A Long Journey
Even a true, integrated biorefinery like BioAmber’s represents an early step in a long journey, declares Gill. That journey is towards a second-generation biorefinery that can be large-scale, cost-effective and commercially viable in replacing hydrocarbon feedstocks, he says.

Biofuels face this challenge first. The U.S. government has mandated that 36 billion gallons of fuel used in 2022 must come from renewable sources, with at least 16 billion gallons from cellulosic ethanol — that is, ethanol derived from non-food feedstocks such as cane, grasses, wood and agricultural waste. Gill notes that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama wants to raise the renewable fuels requirement to at least 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2030.

With this mandated expanded level of biofuels production, “it is absolutely critical that we find biomass sources that are scalable” — that is, not limited by constraints that have already shown themselves with corn-based ethanol where “food versus fuel” supply debates arise, notes Gill.

Success in biofuels would be quickly followed by success in biofeedstocks, he expects.
Chemical companies won’t require nearly as vast a quantity of renewables, but Gill still sees them moving to next-generation biofeedstocks. Echoing Hunt, he says the move will occur where it makes sense in terms of cost-savings and compatibility with products and facilities enjoying growing consumer demand. Process integration will be “a real issue” in deciding that compatibility between biofeedstocks and chemical plants, he adds.

Near-Term Progress
Much of the focus for the foreseeable future will center on cellulosic ethanol. Once production technology for cellulosic ethanol matures, the cost should run about $0.75/gal., including feedstock and capital recovery, predicts “The Role of Biomass in America’s Energy Future,” a project jointly headed by Dartmouth and the Natural Resources Defense Council, New York City, and sponsored by the DOE, among others. This reflects a representative price for cellulosic biomass of $60/dry ton, notes Lee R. Lynd, a professor of environmental engineering design at Dartmouth and co-leader of the project, which corresponds to oil at $22/bbl. (Lynd has developed a bacterium to enhance production of cellulosic ethanol, see In Process: Bacterium Boosts Ethanol Prospects: http://www.chemicalprocessing.com/articles/2008/181.html.)

This potentially low-cost alternative is attracting a number of companies. For instance, DuPont, Wilmington, Del., announced in July a partnership between DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE) and the University of Tennessee Research Foundation to build “an innovative pilot-scale biorefinery” to “develop the commercial package for DDCE’s leading cellulosic ethanol technology.” Important elements include working with Tennessee farmers “to develop the first dedicated cellulosic energy crop supply chain for cellulosic biorefineries utilizing switchgrass” plus the design of a facility flexible enough to operate on either switchgrass or corn waste — stover, cobs and fiber.

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