Year Begins on a High Note

Week 1 Review

The holiday hangover did not seem to curb Big Chem interest in all things biobased, with BASF and DuPont announcing investments before the first week of 2012 came to a close. BASF announced Tuesday that it was investing $30 million in cellulosic sugar company Renmatix, part of a $50 million financing round for the Kleiner Perkins-backed start-up.  I spoke to Renmatix’s CEO, who told me an industrial-scale plant will likely be announced in the first half of this year. Renmatix’s technology breaks down cellulose through supercritical hydrolysis, a process by which heat and pressure are applied to a slurry until the chains of sugar break down into the smaller components usable by biofuel and biochemical producers. This is all done without enzymes and pre-treatments, etc., and seemed a bit too good to be true when I first covered the company in September. But a $30-million investment from the world’s biggest chemical company indicates Renmatix is definitely onto something.

Anyway, I wrote more about Renmatix in my previous post, so I’ll jump right to a roundup of other items from the week:

Sorghum. It’s so hot right now.

Efforts to develop high-biomass sorghum for biofuel/biochemical feedstock appear to be stepping up.  Sorghum doesn’t need a lot of water/chemicals to grow, can be planted on land not suitable for food production, and produces “tremendous” amounts of biomass. DuPont announced it will collaborate with NexSteppe to develop sweet sorghum and high-biomass sorghum hybrids suitable for use as renewable feedstock. Under the terms of the deal, DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred business has made an undisclosed equity investment in NexSteppe and will provide “knowledge, resources, and advanced technologies” to help the company accelerate the breeding and commercialization of the hybrids in the U.S. and Brazil.

Chromatin says it was awarded a $5.7-million DOE grant to develop new varieties of sweet sorghum for use as energy-rich, low-cost feedstock for transportation fuels. Major seed firms, including Monsanto, DuPont, Dow AgroSciences, Syngenta, and Bayer CropScience, have licensing deals for Chromatin’s gene-stacking technology.

Zeachem Starts Up Oregon Biorefinery

ZeaChem (Lakewood, CO) says it has begun operations at its 250,000 gallons/year demonstration biorefinery at Boardman, OR. The $28-million facility is being tested for the production of C2 chain chemicals, including ethyl acetate and ethanol from a feedstock of poplar trees and other non-food biomass. The technology, based on a hybrid biochemical and thermo-chemical process, will subsequently be applied to the production of a range of C3 through to C6 molecules including ethylene, ethylene glycol, and propylene, among other molecules.

For more on Zeachem, see Chemical Week’s in-depth interview with CEO Jim Imbler.

Rubber From A Desert Shrub?

Yulex Corporation, a Phonenix, AZ-based start-up with technology to extract latex and resin from guayule, says it has been granted a patent covering the cultivation, harvest, defoliation, etc. of the desert shrub and the subsequent chemical processes to produce latex. The company says its rubber is an ultra-pure, high-quality and high-performance emulsion and able to  replace petroleum-based synthetics such as polyisoprene and polyurethane as well as tropical Hevea materials in medical devices and other products. Yulex is expected to bring a natural rubber production facility online at Chandler, AZ early this year.

Virent Increases Patent Protection

Biocatalysis firm Virent (Madison, WI) says it was granted five patents covering its catalysis platform, three of which relate to its ongoing development deals with Coca-Cola Company and Royal Dutch Shell. Virent’s para-xylene platform was recently chosen, along with Gevo and Avantium technologies, to help the beverage giant convert its supply chain to 100% renewable polyethylene terephthalate; Virent’s collaboration with Shell covers the conversion of biomass feedstock into gasoline. The additional two patents cover a “range of other industrial chemicals and chemical intermediates” using Virent’s BioForming process.

Verenium Launches Oilfield Services Enzyme

Verenium (Cambridge, MA) says it has launched its second enzyme product for oilfield services. The alpha-amylase, trade named Vereflow, removes filter cake in drilling operations and is effective over a wide temperature and pH range. Fermic  (Mexico City) toll produces the enzyme, which Verenium says has an addressable annual market of $20 million in the U.S.


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