Quietly, with out much fanfare of a few companies have focused on providing low cost synthetic sugars.  The point is if you can sell sugar cheap you can get very rich.

Phycal CEO Kevin Berner told BioFuels Digest, “If you can make low-cost sugar, you can make anything.”  Well, almost anything based from carbon based organic molecules.

The most interesting beyond the chemical feedstock business are emerging companies that are formed with a focus on producing low-cost sugars which can be utilized by the likes of Amyris, Solazyme, LS9 and others in the production of higher value fuels and chemicals.

BioFuels Digest is pointing out three leaders.  Doubtless, others will emerge, here are the three that have begun to attract a lot of attention: Proterro, Comet Biorefining, and Renmatix (formerly known as Sriya Innovations).

Big names are backing Proterro (Battelle Ventures and Braemar) and Renmatix (Kleiner, Perkins).  Comet Biorefining is backed by undisclosed investors.

BioFuels Digest has been poking around and has learned Solazyme president and CTO Harrison Dillon has joined the Proterro scientific advisory board, Amyris CEO John Melo has joined the Renmatix board. The links between Codexis and Raizen are deep and true, and KL Energy has partnered closely with Petrobras.

Now if you were running a biofuels company the raw material cost would be your primary expense.  Those board level connections have to be giving competitor nervous stomachs and marketing folks worries about becoming a captive company.  The very idea should be of considerable concern – believing that a firm would supply a competitor to a board member would likely be beyond the limits.  Cooperation in supply building would be best for driving to optimum technology and efficiency – but contemporary capitalism has little patience for the long view.

What are these leaders expected to offer for sale?

Proterro’s patent-pending biosynthetic process combines an engineered photosynthetic microorganism with an advanced high-density, modular solid-phase bioreactor to provide a fermentation-ready feedstock, called Protose. Produced by combining only water, carbon dioxide, sunlight and nutrients in the biosynthetic process, Protose is projected to cost less than such feedstocks as sugar cane and cellulosics, and can be used to produce a variety of commercial scale fuels and chemicals through standard industrial fermentation methods.

Comet Biorefining has demonstrated its cellulosic sugar technology at pilot scale and is currently scaling up to commercial applications. Comet Biorefining’s goal is to license its Cellulosic Sugar Technology worldwide.  Comet has announced it’s signed an exclusive agreement with Fulton Engineered Specialties Inc., a leading low cost manufacturer of modular process equipment and systems. Under the agreement, Fulton will provide turnkey manufacture of Comet’s modular cellulosic sugar process systems on an exclusive basis. Fulton Engineered Specialties is a designer and fabricator of custom pressure equipment and skid mounted, designed, fabricated and tested chemical process systems.

Renmatix, the leading producer of cellulosic sugars, has a new vice president of process technology Fred Moesler, a former Dow Chemical, NatureWorks and ZeaChem engineer and modeling specialist.  Moesler will oversee the evolution of the company’s proprietary, low-cost biomass-to-sugars process from demonstration scale to commercial deployment.  Moesler will manage the pilot and demonstration cellulose hydrolysis units currently operating in Georgia and work closely with the research and development team to optimize the commercial process design of Renmatix’s Plantrose technology.

The leading edge of technology has evolved from sugar and starch sugars to cellulosic biomass.  Cellulosic may get skipped over in the way to the next stage – a set of new solutions based in synthetic biology.

The media, press, policy makers, academia and others simply aren’t keeping up. There is serious potential that industry R&D in biotechnology can jump straight to cheap sugar from microbial fermentation vs. the long set of steps of getting the sugar out of cellulose and then fermenting.

For a complete look at the BioFuels Digest story with much more background and personnel discussion, this is the link.  As the story there says, it’s a race now to commercialization between cellulosic processing and synthetic biology.


2 Comments so far

  1. Al Fin on September 15, 2011 10:38 AM

    You’re quite right, Brian. This is a very important race which the fat lazy boys and girls in the media, academia, foundations, and government can’t be bothered to follow.

    Proterro’s method is quite advanced but expensive — copying pharmaceutical production — and will take them 10 years to bring to profitable production. By then they will have competition out the ears.

    The others will reach profitability much sooner. The licensing approach between Comet and Fulton is interesting, and a potentially quick road to profits. I am not surprised that Fulton is a Canadian company, since pound for pound, Canadian manufacturers are very innovative.

  2. tmc on October 21, 2011 3:58 PM

    Cheap sugar is what’s keeping those Bioethanol machines from being in everybody’s home. Being able to make $1/gallon Ethanol would drive the Oil industry and your local gas station crazy… they might even become net producers of ethanol & sell the product themselves.. Imagine trucks pumping sugar water into tanks for fermentation– industrial scale.. making 15,000 gallons of fuel grade ethanol in 4 days. Gas stations could end up in the refinery business & keep more profits.

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