Renmatix debuts Kleiner’s ultra low-cost sugar technology baby (all over again)

September 28, 2011 |

Kleiner Perkins chief John Doerr leads the rock-star pitch-fest at Renmatix' re-unveiling in King of Prussia, PA

Touting its ultra low-cost cellulosic sugars, Renmatix presses hard on the hype button. But could this re-think of Sriya really have the goods?

Yesterday on Twitter, a cryptic but steady stream of messages began to fly in during the afternoon regarding Renmatix, whose story was picked up by Fast Company in a breathless-titled short article,  “Renmatix Unlocks The Secret To Cheap, Abundant Biofuels and Biochemicals,” By four o’clock, the retweets on Twitter were coming in at a clip of once every two minutes.

The cause? A heavily-hyped “unveiling” of the Renmatix technology at an event near Philadelphia, billed as an emergence from stealth, featuring a workshop on low-cost cellulosic sugars.

The speakers included some authentic biofuels and technology rock stars such as Kleiner Perkins chief John Doerr, Amyris CEO John Melo, Dupont’s industrial biotech strategy chief Vik Prabhu, and the DOE’s Biomass program chief Paul Bryan.

The goal of the technology: a transformative, lowest-cost means of deconstructing biomass into C5 and C6 sugars and the residual lignin (which is burned to provide energy for the process), using supercritical water. More about that in a moment.

Stealth and stealth again

If we sound a little skeptical it is certainly not because of the technology, but because it is strangely evocative of an emergence from stealth that we covered back in 2009. Then, a company known as Sriya Innovations, originally founded back in 2003, emerged from stealth with a remarkably similar set of goals and technologies, at the time it was establishing a 3-ton per day pilot plant in Kennesaw, Georgia, just north of Atlanta.

Attendees from the 2010 edition of World Biofuels Markets may well begin to scratch their chins and remember a presentation given by Sriya’s Senior Director of Science and Quality, Dr. Sree Nimmala, that included a remarkable set of claims with respect to isolating cellulosic sugars at a very low-cost using a process based on supercritical water. The company was profiled in the selector’s data book for the 50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy for 2009-10 and 2010-11, by which time Kleiner had poured $22 million into the company in its series A and Series B rounds.

Scratch, scratch, scratch. Doh! Then we realized, it’s the same technology. The “emergence from stealth” is deja vu all over again.

Over the past couple of years, there’s been a change in management and name – the company is now known as Renmatix and the technology as Plantrose. But the technological approach remains the same in essence: use the special properties of supercritical water to separate sugars from the lignin.

Supercritical is not entirely new as a separation technology. Had decaf coffee of late? Supercritical CO2 is one of the best processes for separating caffeine from the coffee, and supercritical methanol can used as a substitute for an acid catalyst in making biodiesel out of veggie oil.

What is supercritical, exactly?

Well, at around 373 degrees Celsius and a pressure of a little more than 200 atmospheres, water starts to act a little strange. The traditional boundaries between a liquid and a gas state start to break down, and in the supercritical state (literally, “above the critical point”), water retains the ability to dissolve solids as it does in its liquid state, but effuse throughout the solid like it does when in a gas state.

Back in 2009-10, the claims were as follows:

• Six (6) orders of magnitude faster than enzymatic process
• Flexible feedstock inputs: Sriya technology is biomass agnostic and works for corn stover, corn cobs, wheat straw, rice straw, soft and hardwoods
• “Dial a Product”: Tunable to produce both high volume fuels and high value chemicals like sugars, ethanol, MEG, vanillin, xylitol, furfural, HMF, phenolics
• No Consumables: Does not use acids, bases, enzymes or external solvents
• Economical: On a distributed products basis, sugars can be produced for as little as $.04/lb on an operating basis. Extremely fast reaction times (seconds/minutes for biomass deconstruction and cellulose hydrolysis) enable very low capital expenses.
• Fast fermentation times: Our crude sugars ferment quickly without inhibition problems using current commercial conditions
• Lignin to phenols & vanillin: Converts low value lignin into high value bio-products

All that’s been dialed down a little. The lignin is being burned for system energy, and the “dial a product” capabilities for producing ethanol, MEG, furfural and so on have been jettisoned for a complete focus on low-cost cellulosic sugars.

The delivered product, Plantrose, comes at a supercritical time for companies like Amyris, LS9, Virent and Solazyme that depend on a supply of low-cost sugars to drive their transformative processes.

A generation of companies have been coming forward, including Renmatix, Proterro, Comet Biorefining and HCL Cleantech, to address that need. We profiled some of the technologies and their promise, recently in Sugar Rush, here.

Before the arrival of the Plantrose process, supercritical water had never successfully yielded sugar from biomass at significant scale. The process breaks down a wide range of non-food biomass in seconds, uses no significant consumables and produces much of its own process energy. Current methods of breaking down biomass require expensive enzymes or harsh chemicals, and can take up to three days to yield sugars. With its water-based approach, Renmatix is able to provide cellulosic sugar affordably and on large-scale.

A visit with Renmatix CEO Mike Hamilton

The new CEO is the articulate Mike Hamilton. We spoke with him recently about the Renmatix process.

BD: How does the reaction work?

MH: With two reactions, we strip off the C5 sugar xylose, and then the C6 sugars. We don’t catalyze the reaction, we just use amanipulation of water combined with temperature and pressure. The overwhelming majority of the system’s energy is provided by the lignin.

BD: Where are you, in terms of scale?

MH: We have the demonstration site in Kennesaw (Georgia), and we are doing 3 tons per day there.
We have a first commercial facility announced. Based on locations with an abundance of hardwood trees, we can produce 100,000 tons of sugar on annualized basis. We can source the wood in a 75-100 mile radius, chip, ship and then convert. Or with a co-located partner we can refine on site.

BD: How is the pricing outlook?

MH: Our sugars will be competitive with market. We are competitive with cane now, and we will be better than corn. We will price according to the market, but the process is advantaged.

BD: There’s a real rush on for low-cost sugars. Do you see yourselves as competitors, or allies in a quest?

MH: There are a lot of companies in pursuit, some are further along than others. In the end, the lowest cost providers will be the winners, and maybe a couple or three will be there. There won’t be twenty. AMong the technologies, there is strong acid recovery, or an enzymatic process, or ours.

BD: Range of biomass? What’s out there to work on that you feel is an opportunity for you?

MH: There’s a big study going on, a directional effort to figure all that out. We know we can work on a range of biomass and solubalize cellulose rapidly. There are some differences in the composition, but
the reaction will work on any form of biomass. Wherever there is a supply chain – energy grass or other type of residue, we can take a look. It all comes down to what is economical, assuming equally priced, equally attractive biomass.

BD: Costs for a commercial-scale facility?

MH: From a capital perspective, its $1-$1.25 per kilo of capacity. We are in the midst of raising C round. The facility will be determined soon. We may go with a partner , or we may do it with government backed programs.

The Bottom Line

We’ll excuse the Kleiner hype – after all, John Doerr is in for most of the $22M that’s been poured into the company, and he’d like get his money back as quickly as possible. So, if John wants to get a second run at coming out of stealth, under a new name and management, that’s fine by us.

Notwithstanding the breathless announcements from Fast Company, the technology remains compelling in prospect now, as back in 2009-10. In that the industry’s need for low-cost cellulosic sugars has intensified, and the company’s focus has narrowed to that target, and there have been more hours of operating the 3-ton pilot plant: all good. The leap from 3-ton to massive commercial scale – well, that’s a headache for the process engineers to deal with, there seems to be a desire to avoid the intermediate step of building a demonstration at scale of the technology. Amyris went that route too. Risky, but fast.

4 cent cellulosic sugars (that’s cost of production, not market price) – that’s transformative. And, it brings, in liberating sugars from wood biomass at affordable rates, opportunity for a massive expansion in the geography for companies like Amyris, LS9, Virent and Solazyme. That could be huge.

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