New Kids on the Block: 12 hot bio-based technologies worth watching (Part 2)

June 26, 2012 |

Part 2: As the biobased revolution moves into the commercialization stage, new products and enabling technologies continue to surface that offer tantalyzing opportunities.

In yesterday’s Part I, we looked at 6 innovation-stage companies worth keeping a close eye on – some practically brand-spanking new – others have been flying under the radar for several years. In Part 1, we showcased Altranex, FarmMax, Kiverdi, Polnox, Saffron Eagle, and Sylvatex.

Today, we showcase American Science and Technology Corporation, Bioalgene, Cellulose Sciences International, Cool Planet Biofuels, Incitor, and Mercurius Biofuels.

American Science and Technology Corporation

Chicago, Illinois

The technology

Typically, bio-oil produced from fast pyrolysis consists of a complex mixture of aliphatic and aromatic oxygenates (e.g., acids, aldehydes, ketones) and particulates (solids). It is very viscous, acidic and unstable liquid with relatively low energy density (16-19 MJ/kg) compared to conventional fossil oil (42-45 MJ/kg). However, as scientists and industries are developing technologies that can upgrade low quality bio-oil to high quality carbohydrate chains such as JP8, the fast pyrolysis process is becoming more and more attractive.

To make a use of bio oil driven from biomass, AST has at least three catalysts that can deoxygenate the bio oil and produce liquid hydrocarbon with an 8 to 12 carbon chain length (JP8) When coal and biomass are pyrolyzed together, the excess oxygen from biomass becomes available to hot tar and char. With proper catalyst the chemical reaction can be pushed to generate lot more syngas and leave behind low oxygen and rich carbohydrate blend of bio-oil and tar.

Why it’s hot

In a phrase, low-cost biofuels sooner than other pathways. For one, the military opportunities – think low-cost JP-8 military jet fuel. Recent operations by the United States (U.S.) military, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, have highlighted the cost of JP-8 on the battlefield can go well over $100/gallon.

This activity proposes to produce JP-8 fuels using available biomass and domestic coal. Currently, a commercial technology for production of bio-based JP8 does not exist. Most of the research on production of bio-based JP8 is focused on conversion of sugars by chemical or microbial routes. During the last few years ARL has invested into several pretreatment technologies and some of them have proven to be very promising to provide feedstock (sugars) for conversion to bioJP8. But as of now, none of them have produced a mature technology that can produce JP8 at a price near the current fossil based fuels.

Stage of evolution

Mid-stage startup. As of now, AST has been able to use its bubbling bed pyrolysis to prove the viability of the idea. However, the AST reactor is a small 2 pounds batch reactor. For a real proof of concept, it is necessary a new continuous counter flow pyrolysis reactor to be designed. Also, AST reactors have been designed for ambient pressure. To be able to use the upgrading catalysts, a high pressure reactor is needed. Having the high pressure continuous reactor, can help to test the process in a real pilot plant and collect the required data for the final scale up.

Team Includes

Reza Hemyeri has more than 27 years experiences in design, manufacturing, technology development and process/product optimizations; he Joined AST in 2008 and since 2010 he has been managing all AST manufacturing activities. Dr. Susanta Mohapatra holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from IIT (2005) and a MS in Chemistry from Utkal University, India (1998), and joined AST in 2010 and currently is a senior scientist responsible for conducting scientific research and experiments associated with current research, development, and production projects related to bio-renewable jet fuel. Dr. Ali Manesh holds a Ph.D. from Michigan State University (1982), a MS ME from Gannon University (1979), is one of the founders of AST and is serving AST as president since 2004.

More on AST


Mercer Island, WA

The technology

The Bioalgene solution utililizes flue gas emissions from power plants to dramatically accelerate the growth of algae as a feedstock source for biofuel. The company’s 11 patented components provide routes to aviation fuel and biodiesel, as well as profitable co-products, based on Bioalgene can produce military fuels from algae grown on coal exhaust and cow manure at scalable sites in Oregon and throughout the US. Initial off-take agreements are signed, and Phase I (pre-pilot) site evaluation and growth tests have been successfully completed.

Why it’s hot

Bioalgene’s strengths in its core competency, sustainable business model and attractiveness to institutional investors. Bioalgene’s approach to large-scale algae cultivation accomplishes environmental remediation, as well as the production of multiple product streams from algae biomass. Seattle-based Bioalgene has developed proprietary methods to accelerate the growth of algae that is fed flue gas from a coal-fired power plant. Bioalgene leads several collaborative efforts to develop algae growth and processing technology.

Stage of evolution

Mid-stage startup. Bioalgene received Frost & Sullivan’s “Hot Investment Prospect in Biofuels” award in 2010. The company was chosen to be the algae-producing member of the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest consortium.

Team Includes

Daniel Hand – Chief Systems Engineer is a Certified Energy Professional since 1995 and LEED Accredited professional since 2005. Dan earned his BS in Engineering at West Point and served with distinction in the US Army in domestic and foreign engineering assignments. Steven Verhey – Chief Science Officer – is an entrepreneurial scientist who earned his Ph.D in Plant Physiology at Oregon State University. He directs the species selection program and continues as Bioalgene’s cultivation Project Manager at Boardman. Christopher Haussmann, Chief Process Engineer  brings 30 years of water, wastewater, and treatment experience in power generation, petroleum, gas, and pulp & paper industries.  Stan Barnes – CEO – is a broadly experienced serial entrepreneur, and the founder of Bioalgene.

More on Bioelgene

Cellulose Sciences International

Madison, WI

The technology

Cellulose Sciences has developed a new and inexpensive pretreatment process for conversion of biomass into sugars.  The pretreatment is carried out at ambient temperature and pressure and does not require much energy input or the expense of equipment for elevated pressure.  It uses inexpensive, common chemicals, in a manner that allows recovery and recycling so that there is very little consumption.

By converting the plant cell wall polysaccharides into a nanoporous form, the process enables conversion to simple sugars much more rapidly. It also avoids thermal degradation of sugars to products that are toxic to microorganisms and it reduces inhibition of enzyme action by lignin.  So far, the process has been successfully demonstrated on corn stover, bagasse, switchgrass, and hardwoods.

Why it’s hot

Biofuels and biobased chemicals industries have been in search of cheap sugars for a long time.  Many biobased products which show promise ultimately depend on availability of inexpensive sugars.  Cellulose Sciences’ technology will provide one of the enabling links for any end product that depends on inexpensive sugars.

Stage of evolution

The technology has been proven on multiple feedstocks in the laboratory, and at small pilot scale.  Cellulose Sciences is currently working on the next level of scale-up plans, with pilot facility construction to begin in early 2013

Team includes

CEO Raj Atalla has been a pioneer in characterizing celluloses and their transformations in industrial processes.  He previously served on the faculty of the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, WI and as Director of Chemistry and Pulping Research at the USDA Forest Product Laboratory in Madison, WI.  VP of Technology Dr Steven Edwards has had a 35 year career in most aspects of wood fiber technology with leading firms and has over 40 patents in fiber process technology.  COO Rowan Atalla, who has 15 years of experience in the software industry, has managed CSI’s laboratory since 2009 and has designed the pilot plant.

More on Cellulose Sciences

Cool Planet Biofuels

The technology

The Cool Planet idea is essentially one of sequestration. Instead of running the biomass over one magic catalyst in a fluidized bed reactor, and then trying to do something with the resulting pyro oil, Cool Planet’s systems is based on a series of reactions.

Here’s the outline: Heat biomass into a gas, pass over a catalyst, cool into a soup of liquid molecules, pull off the ones you need (e.g. the gasoline-range molecules); then repeat the process numerous times, with different temperatures and pressures at each reactor “station” and unique catalysts, until you have converted all the volatile gases into gasoline-range molecules. You are left with a residual bio-char, which can be used as a soil enhancement material to boost biomass yields.

“The biomass fractioner is fundamentally different than flash pyrolysis, Cool Planet CEO Mike Cheiky told the Digest, “because we fundamentally deconstruct biomass in an orderly fashion, to preserve as much bond energy as possible. By decomposing in orderly process, we dig deeper into the fragments, and this gives us the freedom to prices the carbon in any way we want.

Why it’s hot

Some of the initial buzz about Cool Planet has generally focused on its astonishing array of investors – Google, BP Technology Investors, GE, ConocoPhillips, Constellation Energy and NRG, among them.
Recently, news escaped from Cool Planet HQ news — and expanded by Twitter and other social media to encompass a fair chunk of planet Earth – that Cool Planet Biofuels achieved 4,000 gallons per acre yields for production of renewable gasoline, and are projecting 3,000 gallons per acre based on what they believe are sustainable feedstock yields. The feedstock is giant miscanthus of the Freedom type, licensed by Repreve Renewables from cultivars developed at Brain Baldwin’s lab at Mississippi State University.

Stage of evolution

Near to commercial. So, what’s the scale up plan? Cool Planet says that it intends to mass produce refining equipment, are built in modules on moveable skids, a flexible modular open architecture system, which makes the roll-out faster and field-upgradable.

Cool Planet is on its third generation design now, and expects to have its first mass producible plant open in the September period, producing what it calls 400,000 gallon per year sub-scale systems, and is expecting a fourth generation design by Spring 2013.

The company says it will have a very low CAPEX system, commencing with its fourth-gen design available in 2013, which it projects will have a CAPEX of $2 per installed gallon of capacity, and will move down in future releases. The company says that, based on the yields it is achieving – and depending on local labor costs – it expects its 40 million gallon reference industrial-scale plant to produce renewable gasoline at $1.00-$1.15 per gallon, and based on biomass market prices in the 60 cents per gallon range.

Team Includes

Mike Cheiky, Chairman, Founder and CTO, the only two time World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer in the Energy and Environment category (2009, 2011). 50 issued patents, several pending, cited in 450 additional. Howard Janzen, President and CEO. Recently CEO of One Communications, earlier the President of Sprint Business Solutions.  Mike Rocke, VP, Business Development was VP Biz Dev at Transonic, earlier at LLNL. Tim Noonan, VP Finance. Recently VP of Finance, Transonic Combustion, earlier VP Treasurer, Inamed (AGN). Mike Bukowski, VP of Fuel Production, recently COO at AE Polysilicon Corp, earlier General Manager at Sunoco Philadelphia Refinery. Rick Wilson, VP of Strategic Relationships, recently President & CEO Cobalt Technologies, Inc. Earlier executive, commercial and technical roles at British Petroleum.

More on Cool Planet


Santa Fe, New Mexico

The technology

Incitor’s technology combines known chemical reactions of biomass with novel engineering and novel homogeneous catalysis to create valuable green products from waste material.  They use two primary pathways:

Biomass to Fuel, Furanics and Levulinates
. In this pathway, Incitor converts raw biomass from corn stover, wheat straw, woody waste, solid waste, algae, or pretty much any sugar containing biomass.  Going to either the fuel, levulinates, or specialty furans (like HMF, CMF, 5-methyl-2-furoic acid or others) involves a two-step process.  Moderate temperatures and simultaneous strong acid hydrolysis, dehydration and rearrangement is used as the first step.  Room temperature homogeneous organic catalysis is the usual second step.

Acrolein to Propionates
In this pathway, Incitor’s organic catalysts also enable the lowest cost generation of proprionates from acrolein sourced either from traditional oil refineries, or from converting waste glycerol (such as from biodiesel production) into acrolein.  Particularly for high demand proprionate esters such as methyl propionate (a primary input on one pathway to methyl methacrylate), Incitor’s process and organic catalyst expertise can significantly reduce propionate and process cost.

Why it’s hot

Incitor’s patent-pending low-temperature chemical process breaks down various forms of agricultural, solid, woody or algal waste to produce commodity petrochemical replacements, specialty bio-based chemicals, and Alestron, a novel third generation biofuel compatible with both gasoline and diesel.

The company says that its technology will make biofuel production at about $2/gallon possible and reduce the production cost of important industrial chemicals such as levulinates, formates, and proprionates by about 80%. Incitor is rapidly scaling up its process to a 15,000-30,000 gallon per year demonstration facility.

Stage of evolution

Developing its demonstration facility. Earlier this month, Incitor received $1.5 million from the Cottonwood Technology Fund to finance its next growth phase.

Team includes

John Elling is the President and CEO, formerly founder, CEO and President of Acoustic Cytometry Systems, and in c-level roles with Mesa Tech, Greffen Systems, MitoTech, Integrated Genomics, Cytoprint and Bioreason, as well as Chairman of Integrated Genomics, Chicago, and Greffen Systems, Atlanta Georgia. Troy C. Lapsys, VP Technology, was President of the Server Division atNew Mexico Software and CTO of eMedius. VP Businedss Development, Jake Berman was Vice President/General Manager of AGRI Export and VP, Sales and Marketing for Polytex Fibers.

Mercurius Biofuels

Ferndale, Washington

The technology

First cellulosic biomass is treated in an acid hydrolysis unit to create a mixture of non-sugar intermediates. The intermediates are then processed through a condensation unit into usable carbon chains. The final step is a hydrotreating process to deoxygenate the intermediates. The final fuel products are drop-in and blend ready.

Note that the Mercurius technology does not depend on enzymes or fermentation; the biorefinery concept is a 3 step process.

Cellulose and hemicellulose contained in the biomass feed is depolymerized, dehydrated, and converted to chloromethyl furfural or CMF (from C6 sugar components), and furfural (from C5 sugar components). Lignin present in the biomass feed is recovered as a solid byproduct. CMF is further converted to ethyl levulinate and a furfural, which along with C5 derived furfural are the intermediate chemicals that can be further processed to alkane based diesel and jet fuel blending components. REACH technology comprises a set of steps to convert suitable biomass feedstocks into alkane based fuels such as diesel and jet fuel blendstocks.

Why it’s hot

It’s a low capex solution. According to the founders,  Mercurius Biofuels biorefinery technology will be economically viable at a petroleum price of approximately $50 /bbl without subsidies – and offers a dramatically lower $3 / capex per annual gal. of capacity, compared to many other biofuels hopefuls.

How and why? Since REACH technology is a liquid phase, the catalytic process is more efficient than other biorefining technologies. In a liquid phase process less volume is handled than a gas phase process, reducing capital costs because equipment sizes are reduced. In addition, catalytic processes tend to be much faster, therefore requiring much lower residence times, again lowering equipment sizes and capital costs. A liquid phase, catalytic process benefits from lower capital costs in both ways.

Also, the technology  could lend itself to smaller, truck mounted conversion units for in-field fuel production from available biomass.

Stage of evolution

Early-stage start-up that has received some DOE grants. The company has been a Cleantech Open Semi-Finalist

Team Includes

Karl Seck, President has worked in oil refining with Conoco, Sunoco, and Clark. Michael Vevera, Chief Financial Officer, has started-up and run successful companies in Japan and Australia. Knud Balslev, VP of Business Development has 25+ years of international business development experience. He has a BSC in Electronics from the Danish Technical University.

More on Mercurius

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