Chemical giant BASF invests in biomass-to-sugar startup

Why is the world's biggest chemical company interested in Renmatix? It's technology could provide cheap building blocks used to make bio-based chemicals.

BASF, one of the world's biggest chemical companies, has invested $30 million in biomass-to-sugar startup Renmatix. BASF's investment was part of a $50 million round of funding that included existing investors Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Why is a German-based chemical giant so interested in a startup based near Philadelphia? Renmatix has found an innovative way to cheaply and quickly produce cellulosic sugar, a building block for biofuels and chemicals. And all without using expensive enzymes, which are traditionally used to break down biomass.

To date, Renmatix has only demonstrated its technology on a small scale in a pilot facility capable of converting three dry tons of cellulosic biomass to sugar per day. But the company has commercial-scale aspirations. Funds raised in this latest round will be used to reach its commercial production goals. And the participation of BASF suggests Renmatix will focus first on the bio-based chemical and plastics markets, not biofuels.

Renmatix has said its next plant will be a commercial-scale facility capable of producing more than 100,000 tons per year of cellulosic sugars. The company envisions multiple regional plants that use the available biomass of that area. For example, wood chips in Georgia and switchgrass in South Dakota.

How the technology works

Instead of using enzymes or chemicals, the company's so-called plantrose process uses supercritical water -- or water under high pressure and temperature -- to convert cellulose to sugar.

Biomass, such as plant waste and wood chips, is primarily comprised of hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin. The biomass is first dissolved in water to make a slurry and subjected to high temperature and pressure. The hemicellulose dissolves into a sugar stream, while the cellulose and lignin remain as solid particles.

From there, the remaining solids -- the cellulose and lignin -- are removed from the sugar stream, where they're mixed with water to form a slurry and pumped into a cellulose hydrolysis reactor. In just a few seconds, the cellulose is converted into sugar water and the lignin remains as solid particle. The sugar can then be fermented to make biofuels or chemicals.

Photo: Flickr user another sergio, CC 2.0


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