Publication maps renewable biofuel and chemical production initiatives
January 07, 2015
By Claudia Izique
Agência FAPESP – In September 2014, the Brazilian biotechnology company GranBio started up Bioflex 1, the country’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant. The raw material used by the plant is sugarcane biomass, making the biofuel known as second-generation (2G) ethanol. Bioflex 1 is located in São Miguel dos Campos, Alagoas State, and has a nominal production capacity of 82 million liters per year.
The US$190 million plant uses pre-treatment technology from Italy’s Beta Renewables, enzymes from Denmark’s Novozymes and yeast from Dutch company DSM to break down the molecular structure of the biomass (sugar cane bagasse and straw) and extract sugar, which is fermented to produce ethanol.
This information about GranBio and the technology it uses can be found in the World Directory of Advanced Renewable Fuels and Chemicals, published by Elabora Consultoria. The publication lists 250 advanced biofuel development projects that use renewable raw materials and feedstocks.
The directory, which is supported by public institutions and companies, maps initiatives to produce renewable biofuels and chemicals implemented in six countries: the United States, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Its purpose is to offer researchers and manufacturers a comprehensive overview of the key initiatives involving technological innovations in biochemistry and thermochemistry, among others. “The directory is a very useful work tool,” said João Furtado, Managing Partner of Elabora and Executive President of the Brazilian Industrial Biotechnology Association (ABBI).
“It covers every aspect for which there are gaps in the information available elsewhere. And for research purposes, information is key,” said Glaucia Mendes Souza, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Chemistry Institute (IQ-USP) and a member of the Steering Committee for FAPESP’s Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN).
The directory was launched at the 2nd Brazilian BioEnergy Science &Technology Conference (BBEST) in October 2014 and discussed at a meeting held at FAPESP’s headquarters on December 3, when researchers and representatives of companies in the relevant industries assessed the prospects for biotechnology in Brazil.
“We can aspire to be world leaders,” said Alan Hiltner, Vice President of GranBio. According to Hiltner, the ethanol produced by the company “is the cleanest fuel in the world produced on a commercial scale in terms of carbon intensity, according to the California Air Resources Board, ARB.” The calculation considers CO2 emissions throughout the value chain, from the harvesting of raw material through inputs and energy consumption to transportation and distribution of the biofuel.
“Sugar is the new petroleum”
According to the directory, there are indeed “forces in favor” of green fuels and chemicals, such as the growing concern with environmental sustainability. However, the authors note that many of the new technologies are still in the early stages of development, making access to investment difficult, so that state incentives and funding play a critical role.
According to Hiltner, even a company such as GranBio, which has invested its own money in the development of technology and the construction of a production unit, faces bottlenecks such as the lack of a reliable regulatory environment, for example.
GranBio experienced “enormous difficulty” in signing agreements with international partners owing to patent registration delays in Brazil. “Fast-track implementation for the judgment of patents in three years would demonstrate a strategic commitment,” said Hiltner.
Hiltner also noted the technological risks, ranging from the biological limits of the microorganisms responsible for breaking down the organic matter, which could compromise early investment decisions, to the price of feedstock relative to oil prices. Moreover, the company experienced difficulties in locating available biomass because sugar cane bagasse is frequently used as boiler fuel.
“We required 800,000 metric tons of bagasse per year for conversion into energy,” Hiltner explained. “We couldn‘t find enough, so we learned to convert cane straw or trash.” GranBio developed a system for collecting, storing and processing 400,000 tons of straw per year for Bioflex 1. Part of the biomass that used to be left on the ground or burned is now collected, baled and stored for conversion into ethanol and other renewables on a commercial scale.
Another bottleneck in the production of cellulosic ethanol from sugar cane is the small amount of cellulose present in existing cane varieties, developed for mills to manufacture edible sugar as an end-product.
“We went back to a number of ancestral varieties and crossed them with commercial hybrids to develop what we call ‘energy cane’,” said Hiltner. “This cane is more robust, with higher fiber content and greater productivity than conventional cane. It’s ideal for use in producing second-generation biofuels and biochemicals.” “The new technologies release the potential of biomass. Sugar is the new petroleum,” he said, referring to the glucose contained in cane bagasse and straw, which, when fermented, can produce biofuel.
Another case listed in the directory is Oxiteno, which manufactures tensioactive agents and specialty chemicals. Renewables already represent 20% of its raw material. “And 35% of the products we sell, from tensioactives to solvents and oleochemicals, contain renewables,” said André Luís Conde da Silva, R&D Manager, Agrochemicals.
“Sustainability isn’t just about renewable energy,” he added. “We work with biodegradable products that cause less pollution and improve the conditions for health and well-being because the effects of their use by human beings are minimized.”
GranBio adopts an “integrated approach” to the manufacturing of green chemicals, including cooperation, partnership and investment in research, among other things. “Setting up a green chemicals project is complicated because competitiveness involves costs and markets. The challenge ranges from the availability of biomass to the biological thermodynamics required to extract a reasonable quantity of product,” he said.
Owing to these and other difficulties, some of the projects listed in the directory have failed to survive the “death valley curve” – the period between the identification of a promising technology, when a startup receives its initial capital, and the point at which it fails unless it begins to generate revenue. The next edition of the directory, scheduled for 2017, will certainly include new initiatives, according to the organizers.
“At the outset, technology is a promising but amorphous monster. The faster it’s diffused and the players perceive alternatives, the faster uncertainty gives way to knowledge and the learning curve is completed,” said Elabora’s Furtado.
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