Special EU Biofuels Report: The Top 10 Stories of the Year, and More

December 26, 2013 |

EU-globeThe technology is there. Demand for alternative fuels, chemicals and materials is there. Feedstock is expensive.

In so many of the signature developments announced around the world this year, there’s been an EU technology in the mix. Whether it is the host of EU technologies targeting Brazil, the US or China, there’s been a lot heard from the giants like BASF, Novozymes, Evonik, UPM and more.

In the EU itself, there’s less clarity, though the potential is there and though support for the overall bioeconomy and R&D remains strong.

E4tech has released a report finding that advanced biofuels could grow to 12-15% of energy to the transport sector by 2030, representing overall greenhouse gas emission savings of around 8%. And could reach at least 8% of the EU’s 2020 10% Renewable Fuels target. That’s the finding from the first Auto-Fuel Biofuels Roadmap for the EU to 2030.  With future energy scenarios showing liquid fuels remaining important to the long-term energy mix, biofuels and vehicle efficiency will be essential if the European transport sector is to cut greenhouse gas emissions and meet its decarbonization targets.

According to the report’s authors, “at present there is no 2030 policy for biofuels in Europe, which is holding back investments, including in advanced biofuels. Furthermore, the lack of coherence between vehicle and fuel regulations and in the implementation of the Renewable Energy Directive could lead to a fragmented approach across the EU resulting in higher costs and confusion for drivers.”

Here are the Top 10 developments of the year.

1. The European Commission’s $4.87 billion Public Private Partnership proposal for Biobased Industries

In July, the European Commission proposed a $4.87 billion (€3.8 billion) Public Private Partnership on Biobased Industries, in order to accelerate the commercialization of biobased products in Europe. It’s the biggest, boldest and most sophisticated biobased initiative ever launched.

The European Commission will invest $1.28 billion (€1 billion) and industry $3.59 billion (€2.8 billion), from 2014 to 2020, to boost market uptake of new biobased products that are “made in Europe”.

According to the group’s strategic vision document, BRIDGE (“Biobased and Renewable Industries for Development and Growth in Europe”): “New biomass supply chains will be developed to feed new integrated biorefineries while existing biorefineries will be brought to a new level: to secure feedstock availability and flexibility throughout the year, with multiple inputs and multiple outputs. These developments will gradually complement and replace product streams from fossil oil and provide
innovative new products and solutions and markets.

“However, critical technological, political and market challenges remain before full-scale commercialization of the innovations can succeed and innovative solutions are brought to the market. Another fundamental challenge is the innovation “Valley of Death”, from research to market. These challenges cannot be overcome by individual companies or the industry alone.”

2. Beta Renewables plant opens commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Italy

In Italy, Beta Renewables and Novozymes marked the official opening in Northern Italy of the world’s largest cellulosic biofuels facility. Situated in fields outside the city of Crescentino, it is the first plant in the world to be designed and built to produce ethanol from agricultural residues and energy crops at commercial scale using enzymatic conversion.

The plant uses wheat straw, rice straw and arundo donax, a high-yielding energy crop grown on marginal land. Lignin, a polymer extracted from biomass during the ethanol production process, is used at an attached power plant, which generates enough power to meet the facility’s energy needs, with any excess green electricity sold to the local grid. Capacity, at commissioning, is 75 million liters per year.

The two companies formed a strategic partnership in October 2012, making Novozymes the preferred enzyme supplier for Beta Renewables’ current and future cellulosic biofuel projects. More than $200 million has been invested in research and development of the technology used to produce cellulosic ethanol at the Crescentino facility, since 2011.

3. Abengoa reaches demo scale in Spain with waste-to-biofuels process

In July, Abengoa inaugurated its demonstration waste-to-biofuels plant, with a capacity to treat 25,000 tons of municipal solid waste from which it will obtain up to 1.5 million liters (400,000 gallons per year) of ethanol.

The demonstration plant, located in Babilafuente (Salamanca, Spain) uses waste-to-biofuels technology developed by Abengoa to produce second-generation biofuels from MSW using a fermentation and enzymatic hydrolysis treatment. During the transformation process, the organic matter is treated in various ways to produce organic fiber that is rich in cellulose and hemicellulose, which is subsequently converted into ethanol.

According to Abengoa, “the production of ethanol from municipal solid waste is a major technological breakthrough in the waste management model, since it increases the recovery rate, minimizes the carbon footprint and generates major benefits for society. It is a renewable and clean source of energy that helps to cut our dependency on fossil fuels while reducing greenhouse gas emissions per kilometer travelled by 70%. Furthermore, it maximizes the recovery of the organic fraction of the MSW and prevents more than 80% of the waste ending up in landfill.”

4. BASF and UPM tap Renmatix technology for industrial sugars

Last week, BASF and Renmatix signed a non-exclusive joint development agreement to scale up the Renmatix Plantrose process for the production of industrial sugars based on lignocellulosic biomass. The parties have agreed to key financial terms for future commercial licenses, which BASF can exercise at its discretion. The collaboration follows BASF’s $30 million investment in Renmatix in January 2012.

“The train is out of the station,” said Renmatix CEO Mike Hamilton, “in terms of the demand for renewable materials. What has to happen now is to enable very cost effective, sustainable solutions to meet that demand.”

The news follows closely on an announce last week by Renmatix and Virent of a strategic collaboration to convert affordable cellulosic sugars to renewable chemicals and bio-based packaging materials. Specifically, under the terms of the multi-phase development project, Renmatix’s Plantrose platform will be evaluated and potentially optimized to provide an affordable sugar stream for Virent’s Bioforming process for the large-scale production of bio-based paraxylene. This is a project which led the Coca-Cola Company to invested in Virent.

It follows by a few months another JDA established with UPM — when the Finnish forest products giant tapped Renmatix as a core partner in their BioFore strategy to expand beyond traditional products and markets.

Sustainability or economics, which is the ultimate driver? “The winners are going to have both.,” Hamilton told the Digest. “If you are not thinking economics, you’re dreaming, in terms of sustainability. It has to economically allow partners to grow their business. Both – that’s what allows the share shift from petroleum to biobased. Over time the two will find their natural equilibrium.”

5. Lanxess demonstrates biobased PBT at scale using Genomatica’s process

In Germany, Lanxess has run a production campaign of bio-based PBT in Lanxess’ world-scale production plant using 20 metric tons of bio-based BDO made with Genomatica’s commercially-proven process. It was the First production of bio-based polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) in a world-scale plant using 1,4-butanediol (BDO) made from renewable feedstock

The properties and the quality of the resulting bio-based PBT are fully equivalent to conventional petro-based PBT with regard to all tested parameters.

The world-scale PBT plant, with a capacity of 80,000 tons per year, is located in Hamm-Uentrop, Germany and operated as a joint venture in which Lanxess has a share of 50 percent.

6. Borregaard reaches demo scale in Sarpsborg

In April, Norwegian Finance Minister Sigbjørn Johnsen officially inaugurated the Borregaard biorefinery demonstration plant in Sarpsborg, which will produce green chemicals and sugars based on biomass from wood and agricultural and forestry waste.

The demonstration plant, called Biorefinery Demo, started preliminary operations in summer 2012, followed by normal operations in the 1st quarter of 2013.

The plant relies on Borregaard’s proprietary BALI technology and is a continuation of today’s biorefinery concept. The aim is cost-effective and sustainable production of lignin and bioethanol from new raw materials. BALI technology involves converting the cellulose fibres in biomass to sugars that can be used for the production of second generation bioethanol, while other components of the biomass (lignin) become advanced biochemicals. These products can replace petroleum-based alternatives, and the raw material cannot be used in food production.

7. Naturally Scientific heads for the US for tissue-cultured fuels and industrial sugars

In October, Sweetwater Energy announced a 50/50 joint venture with Naturally Scientific, Inc. to produce sugar from waste carbon dioxide.

The new technology converts carbon dioxide taken directly from the emissions of industries such as ethanol refineries, natural gas power plants and many others, into usable sugars.

The joint venture expands Sweetwater’s sugar-production reach beyond biomass-based, second-generation feedstocks into third-generation feedstocks. Sweetwater’s new ultra-flexible feedstock model opens up multiple new ways of delivering quality sugars to customers for a cost believed much lower than the current market can provide.

Sweetwater currently extracts sugars from many types of plant material. Those sugars are in essence a renewable alternative to petroleum because most products built from petroleum— such as plastics, fuels, and many chemicals—can also be built from Sweetwater’s sugars.

Adding the ability to create sugar from carbon dioxide means Sweetwater can supply biomass- based sugar to an ethanol refinery, for example, and then also capture the carbon dioxide that’s a byproduct of the ethanol production to create emission-based sugars, which can be turned into oils, biodiesel, or other products

8. Biorefinery Midscandinavia — a biofuels time machine under development in Sweden

In July, we profiled biorefinery R&D project number 100 at the Swedish Processum cluster, aimed at thermochemically converting lignin from black liquor to bio oil. It is run by the Swedish-Norwegian cooperation project “Biorefinery Midscandinavia” and the project partners are Processum Biorefinery Initiative, PFI, Metsä Board Sweden, Viken Skog (a Norwegian forest owner association) and the Bergen University.

Lignin is an aromatic polymer which is released in the pulp mills’ sulphate cooking sequence and ends up in the black liquor, is burnt and transformed into heat energy in the recovery boilers. When pulp mills are run increasingly energy efficient there may be an energy surplus in the form of steam. This energy surplus makes it possible to remove some of the lignin from the process, thus relieving the recovery boiler.

9. Green Biologics raises $25M, heads for scale

In December, Green Biologics announced the closing of a $25 million Series B round led by Sofinnova Partners with strategic participation by Swire Pacific Limited. Follow on investments were also made by Capricorn Venture Partners, Oxford Capital Partners, Morningside Ventures and ConvergInce Holdings LLC.

“This investment round underlines the strength of Green Biologics’ commercial and technical position, and will allow us to execute our plan to bring on stream our first commercial production facility in the U.S. in 2016, ” said Green Biologics CEO Sean Sutcliffe.

Green Biologics also noted that following on from the announcement on July 2nd, an asset purchase agreement has been executed and approved by Central MN Ethanol Co-op shareholders last week. The aim is to retrofit the 23 Mgy plant to produce renewable n-butanol and acetone in 2016.

“Sofinnova looked long and hard in the market,” noted Sutcliffe, “and Swire is very strong in Asia, and has the stake in Cathay who are looking for biofuels potentials for the long term. There are a lot of linkages – agribusiness, and major sugar – a range of interests there. Sofinnova and Swire have seen the progress, and we’re delighted that they like what they see. Obviously its a long-term partnership in the making and they share our vision in building this company and this market.”

10. Evonik, LanzaTech ink 3-year research deal for specialty plastics from waste derived synthesis gas.

In December, Evonik Industries and LanzaTech signed a three year research cooperation agreement which will see Evonik combining its existing biotechnology platforms with LanzaTech’s synthetic biology and gas fermentation expertise for the development of a route to bioprocessed precursors for specialty plastics from waste derived synthesis gas.

In this route, microorganisms placed in fermenters are used to turn synthesis gas into chemical products. Synthesis gases comprise mainly of either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide and hydrogen and can come from a variety of gasified biomass waste streams including forestry and agricultural residues and gasified municipal solid waste.

“Industrial biotechnology is one of the core competences of Evonik. It enables new approaches to specialty chemicals and processes,” explains Prof. Stefan Buchholz, the head of Creavis. Creavis, Evonik’s strategic innovation arm, is committed to developing alternative bio-based pathways for the production of such specialty chemicals, to not only reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but also reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their manufacture. “The use of renewables and specific waste streams is one of the main focuses of our research and development work, and LanzaTech offers an additional interesting approach,” says Buchholz.

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