Cobalt, Rhodia ink joint development deal for biobutanol demonstration plant in Brazil

August 3, 2012 |

In California, Cobalt Technologies and Rhodia announced they will begin joint development and operation of a biobutanol demonstration facility in Brazil. The Cobalt/Rhodia plant will utilize sugarcane bagasse to make n-butanol; bagasse is used at sugar mills to provide process energy to drive the mill and to supply power to the local grid; the Cobalt project will utilize that fraction of the bagasse that generates power for the grid, or any residual biomass that is burned as waste. Work will begin in August 2012 and will move to a mill site in early 2013 for integration testing. Operational testing at the demonstration plant is expected to be completed by Mid-2013.  The exact production capacity of the plant was not disclosed.

This is one more step by the two companies toward the construction of commercial-scale biorefineries using Cobalt’s technology to convert Brazilian bagasse and other local non-food feedstock into bio n-butanol in Latin America.

Cobalt CEO Bob Mayer on the pact

“Obviously this is a huge milestone for us,” Cobalt CEO Bob Mayer told the Digest. “It started a year ago with a very comprehensive feasibility study with Rhodia, to validate the technology to the point of committing capital for the demo plant; now work has already started and will run through the early part of Q3 2013, and the data will form the basis for a decision on a first commercial plant.”

“The demonstration will occur in two steps,” Mayer added. “We will have trials at national lab in Brazil to make sure everything will work as planned in local conditions, then we will move to 1/10th full commercial scale at a top 5 sugar producer in Brazil, where we will further validate that we do not disturb ethanol or sugar production. That would leave us in Q4 2013 with a decision to go forward with a 35 million gallon capacity n-butanol project, again sited at major sugar plant, where we would be in production in 2015.”

Normal butanol vs isobutanol

Mayer said that the n-butanol market is substantially larger than isobutanol, $5 billion annually and growing; he noted that n-butanol not as well suited for gasoline replacement, where isobutanol is a good drop in for that market, but noted that there are numerous downstream products that can be made from n-butanol. Mayer pointed to Cobalt’s work with the Navy on making jet fuel and diesel, where he indicated that “n butanol has advantages for high performance jet fuels and offers a better starting point for diesel.” Butanol is widely used as an industrial chemical found in paints, adhesives, inks, and other solvents.

When asked about the existing commercial partnership with American Process, Mayer said that “we are evaluating that to make sure the goals of that partnership are incremental to what we are doing here in Brazil with Rhodia, and are taking a close look at the work in Alpena.”  But he predicted that the companies would continue to have a strong relationship.

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