The one-stop, get it hot, biobased Candy Men: Midori and low-cost cellulosic sugars

September 12, 2013 |

aguileraAs Christine Aguilera sings in Candy Man: “Good things come to boys who wait…He’s a one stop, get it while it’s hot, baby don’t stop Candy Man.”  

Or, as we might say with more restraint, Midori reports they have broken through on a 100-year quest for low-cost cellulosic sugars. And found a way to turn your cotton tees into sugars, too.

About a year ago, a little-known company called Midori Renewables picked up some traction from the invited international selectors in the 50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy. It was a small group that was “in the know” — after all, the company’s foundational technology had only started coming forward in 2010 and the venture was very much in stealth mode, out of the Flagship VentureLabs – the source of companies such as Joule Unlimited

The promise of the technology was simple: a revolutionary way to deliver low-cost sugars — perhaps the most stubborn barrier between cellulosic biofuels as a triumph in the lab, and cellulosic biofuels as a triumph at the pump.

Sugars? Well, you can buy them via the existing food system — bringing upon you the false choice of “food vs fuel” and all the distractions of that canard — and, today, you might pay around 17 cents per pound for cane sugars. Takes some 12 pounds of sugar, by any technology, to make a gallon of fuel — at best — and thereby you are looking at something like $2.04 just for the sugars. No capex, no opex, no overhead, no kidding. Now, corn sugars can be had for less — and sorghum sugars such as Argentine milo, for even less than that.

But, as we observed a few years ago, what this country really needs is a good five-cent sugar. Even ten cents would do.

That’s why it is notable that, this month, Flagship VentureLabs announced that Midori Renewables is globally deploying their Breaking the Biomass Barrier technology, a novel catalyst that melts non-food biomass into low cost sugar, enabling the production of many valuable renewable products and animal feed.

The technology may surprise. There’s no biology in it, really – no enzymes, no magic micro-organism — fungus, yeast, bacteria, protein, aqueous acid, or what have you. It is a solid material — though one temporarily shrouded in some mystery — but one that reportedly can be easily separated from the reaction and reused, resulting in a significantly lower cost solution than existing technologies.

“People have been trying to cost-effectively break down cellulose in biomass for more than 100 years, and we have finally done it,” said Dr. Brian Baynes, Founder and Chairman of Midori and Partner at Flagship VentureLabs.

“Obviously, with Mascoma, we have been involved with the biological production of sugars, and we’ve looked at concentrates like Virdia, and also true thermochemical technologies that work at a couple of hundred degrees. We concluded that we should focus on one area of innovation — where there are more mild temperatures involved – like 100 C.

Cake-baking

“It’s a little like taking biomass and baking a cake,” said Baynes. “You mix it up with the catalyst, shove it into an oven — or, at scale, into a reactor. The sugars are melted of of the cellulose. You wash it with water, until you have a stream that looks like maple syrupthen you separate out all the solid residuals. It’s not hard for that step, because the trick is that we are using a very dense material that sinks very rapidly to the bottom of the reactor where it is recovered for re-use.

“As everyone knows, a lot of biology or new technology, it’s a challenge. The necessary operations are hard to scale. But in our case, every unit we have is one where there has been processing done this way for 50 years.

“The invention dates back to 2010, and we were at gram scale then, then kilogram scale, and now we are a ton per day. The technology actually gets better with scale. At test tube scale, it’s hard to do in some ways. First, you have more edge effects instead of the bulk effects. With scale, you get lots more uniformity. Plus, with recovery of the catalysts from the sugars, we can use big, standard units. In the lab, it’s like guys with tweezers extracting the catalyst.

New sheriff in town: CEO Dan Trunfio

If you remember Bio-Architecture Labs venture into making ethanol from seaweed — which later recentered its aims on higher-value markets and as a technology partners. Well, that’s Dan Trunfio — though his background runs deep in the world of Shell downstream operations, and as Vice President leading the development of Shell’s biofuel strategies and operations worldwide

Midori has made a significant technology breakthrough, one of the most substantial I have seen in my three decades in the oil and gas industry,” said Mr. Trunfio. “I am very excited to be leading Midori into its next phase of growth.”

Midori has also assembled a scientific advisory board that includes renowned experts Dr. Charlie Wyman, Ford Motor Company, Chair and Professor of Chemical & Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Riverside; Dr. Richard Bailey, former CEO of Microbia Inc.; and Dr. Leo Manzer, a former DuPont executive and DuPont Technical Fellow.

The Cost

“It’s too early to pin down the costs precisely, and some of that will vary from feedstock to feedstock, and to the extent that we have to do extra processing on the sugars to make them work for a given partner.

“For example, the sugars come in C5s and C6s, which are important to different partners to differing extents. Plus, when you hydrolyze hemicellulose there is acetic acid released – not a product of the process, just a side product that is there — but if your bug can tolerate acetic acid, you can convert using that raw stream, instead of needing more processing to take that out. And, obviously, you have variation in the underlying feedstock costs.

“Looking at the economics, though — if you had completely ideal scale and conversion costs and perfect feedstocks and costs in line, it could be 3-4 cents per pound. We’re looking at low single digits.

Will it work for any company and feedstock? It’s broad. Over the past 12 months, Midori has been testing its technology in a range of markets including, renewable fuels, renewable chemicals, food/feed, and consumer goods materials — ag residues, woody biomass, and more.

But it may not work for all partners. Clearly, as noted above, those who can tolerate certain side products like acetic acid are going to see lower prices. Also, e.coli can be harder to work with in terms of the ability of certain organisms to tolerate the sugars. Reportedly, yeasts work better, as does algae.

Next steps?

Expect a first small commercial in 2014. “Next year, we lock down the site, and do the detailed engineering, an we expect to break ground by the end of next year,” said Baynes.

Financing? Will it stay within Flagship or be syndicated to other partners and strategics? “We haven’t made the decision on syndicating yet. It’s still 100% Flagship. It depends on the number and type of plants, the partnership structures. Dan Trunfio will figure that out, and he’s building the team right now.

The retrofit process

Midori’s technology has been shown to be effective on a variety of biomass feedstocks and can bolt-on to existing corn, sugarcane or palm oil processing facilities, converting low value cellulosic waste into high value, usable sugars.

Low-cost, like Gevo? “It’s not unlike Gevo in some ways with the retrofit,” said Baynes, “in that we can partner with animal feed processing, a sugarcane mill, or corn ethanol, for example. But we attach to the front end instead of the back-end., And it is a true bolt-on, as opposed to the Sweetwater hub and spoke system.

Geographies?

Think broad. Especially North America, Asia and Brazil — where you have bagasse, stover, woody biomass, palm waste and the like.

Though, interestingly, the technology can work even on a cotton t-shirt. Which is to say it can make sugars from a cotton fabric.

Makes you see candypants in a whole new light, really.

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