This is a great technology that uses bio waste to manufacture good product. Hopefully, it is not cost prohibitive to do so. Consumers are typically not motivated enough by "green" product to pay a premium for it.
More companies like BASF need to pour investment dollars into companies like Renmatix to push forward the commercialization of novel bioplastics. As with most emerging technologies, the innovations come smaller companies, which are often bootstrapping development. Cash infusions like this one go a long way in helping these technologies see the light of day.
I am very happy to see this technology coming of age. Cellolisic Ethanol offers so much more over Grain Ethanol. As the technology matures we will see an even greater gap between the two. Through this technology post harvest processing of the remaining biomass feedstock makes it possible to produce both food and ethanol from the same plant. Some biomass only feedstocks can be harvested multible times. As I understand it switchgrass, once established can be harvested 3 times annually. While Industrial Hemp may produce up to 30% more ethanol per acre over switchgrass, the 3 vs 1 harvest ratio allows switchgrass to produce 2.25 times more ethanol annually.
Personnally, I would like to see the development of Ethanol Hybrid agricultural equipment. Farm scale adaptations of cellolisic ethanol technologies could someday reach the point to where both the electrical and fuel needs of the farm are met using biomass grown onsite greatly reducing the overhead related to food production.
Thanks for the vote of confidence. Personally, I will be happy when no food crops are being used for ethanol production, and when only the trash from them, or the materials from non-food crops, are being used to make alternative fuels and materials feedstocks. Of course, to separate food crop trash from food crops and send it somewhere it can be converted will require infrastructure and cooperation on a wide scale.
I was thinking the same thing. The advantage of this, as spelled out in the headline, is that it is putting a current waste product to good use. I am not a fan of using farmland to grow crops for things other than food production, when there is a very real concern about that production and the prices. The fact that this is from the "leftovers" is a definite advantage.
Thanks, Jack. The next step is to coordinate among industries and regions and manufacturers so that the trash from food crops can be sent where they can be used for producing new fuels and/or materials. This will take a lot of forethought and cooperation. Hope we're up to it!
Ann, this is definitely big news! This technology could easily be a game changer. And it is an interesting use for supercritical water. Supercritical fluids have many interesting properties. Only recently have people begun to take advantage of these properties.
There are a few minor errors in this article, mostly in the third paragraph. First, polyethylene and polypropylene aren't produced from sugars by fermentation. Fermentation of sugars produces ethanol. Ethanol can then be used to produce ethylene, which in turn can be used to produce polyethylene. The process described in the article only gives you the first step (sugars). These sugars could potentially be used in any number of industrial processes. As Renmatix puts it, "We don't sell cake to the baker, we create the flour" -- or sugar, as the case may be.
Second, the sentence "cellulosic sugars are extremely difficult to break down" should probably say something more like "breaking cellulosic material down into sugars can be difficult."
Still, this is a huge development. My biggest concern about bioplastics has always been the morality of using food crops to produce disposable consumer goods in the midst of a global food crisis. A cheap, fast method of producing biopolymer feedstocks from waste materials is a big step towards addressing this concern.
Thanks everyone for your feedback. I just had an interview with a research group yesterday that made me smarter about the complexities of the cellulose-to-ethanol chain, but thanks, Dave for pointing out the goofs. The Freedonia Group has just completed a major study of bioplastics and they had some interesting things to day. First, consumers *do* care and that's why most of the volume to date has been in less durable bioplastics to replace things like trash bags. Things made with the more durable stuff, aka engineering plastics, is a different matter. And unfortunately, most bioplastics of any kind are still being made from food crops, not from non-food crops like switchgrass. Stay tuned--a March feature will address more of this in detail
Nice article, Ann. A quick question -- why does it matter if food crops are used? I would think it's the fertile land that's taken up that matters. What you grow on it for materials doesn't really matter. As for eating into the food supply (so to speak), cows are pigs do more to eat up food land than materials ever will.
Rob, it's hugely important. Growing food crops purely for use as biofuels and other non-food uses is a problem in several ways. Aside from sequestering land, the bigger problem is that it drives up the prices of human food (as well as prices for animal feed). The higher price of corn in particular has been devastating to poor people in Latin America, for example, who are on the edge as it is.
Diverting the non-food trash from food crops grown as food crops would make a lot of sense, in fact, perhaps the most sense, but is not yet being done. Even growing non-food crops, such as switchgrass, for biofuels, etc. would make more sense.
OK, I get it. I remember now how corn prices rose during the time when ethanol was restricted to corn crops. Yes, it makes sense now. I also like the idea of consumer materials that are otherwise bound for the landfill.
@Ann: I see that you answered Rob's question before I did! Thanks for bringing up the effect of rising corn prices on the poor in Latin America. This is a story that many people in the U.S. know nothing about.
@Charles: The Renmatix process produces sugars (glucose and glycose). I don't see why ethanol produced by fermenting these sugars would be any different from ethanol produced from sugars obtained from another process. An ethanol molecule is an ethanol molecule.
@Rob: You're right that switching acreage from food crops to (say) switchgrass in order to make biopolymers would have the same effect on global food supplies as making biopolymers from food crops.
The advantage of the technology described in this article (as the title alludes to) is that you could use waste biomass, such as corn leaves and stalks, to produce sugars. This way you wouldn't need to plant any additional acreage, or switch any acreage away from food crops.
It's true that the use of grains as animal feed may not be the most efficient use of land or food crops, but at least the animals which are fed with the grains wind up as food for people.
Well, gosh all golly gee whiz, Ann. We just can't seem to come up with an efficent way to make ethanol from cellulosic farm waste, can we. Tell that to Poet - http://www.poet.com - a company that has been making ethanol from agricultural cellulosic waste for vehiclular use for FORTY YEARS NOW. In fact, Poet is one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethanol providers in the country. Hmm. Maybe someone should tell Poet it just can't be done. Or tell all those mid-western farmers who have depended on Poet to help them get rid of that trash and make some money with it for 4 decades it's impossible. (Since I am 3 days behind in making this post I don't expect it to be seen or commented on by anyone, most of all the article writer, but at least I've done my bit to bring some reality to this discussion.)
@Justajo: POET has indeed been producing ethanol from corn for a long time -- 26 years, not 40, according to their website. However, their project to produce ethanol from cellulosic corn waste (called Project LIBERTY) is just beginning. They use an enzymatic process to break cellulose down into sugars, rather than the supercritical water based process which Renmatix uses. Time will tell which process works best. But to say that POET -- or anyone else -- has been producing ethanol from cellulosic corn waste for 40 years is simply not true.
My bad. Of course you are correct that it is 26 years. (Don't know where that other number came from. Nice to have fact checkers.) But despite my mistake in the time aspect, it remains that ethanol has been made from lignocellulosic biomass mentioned in the article for quite some time. The tone of the article and the authors follow up suggests to me that it has yet to be done on a large and efficient scale by any previous method. Thus my reason for inserting this info. It would be nice to know if this is a better method, especially more efficient and greener.
@justajo: Take another look at the POET website. Cellulosic ethanol is something new for them too. They recently got a loan guarantee from the federal government to build a pilot plant in Iowa. It's true that they are the largest ethanol producer in the U.S., but when it comes to producing ethanol from corn stover (as opposed to corn), they have yet to commercialize it.
Justajo, I'm a little puzzled by your comment, since neither I nor the article said we can't make ethanol from food crop wastes. Clearly, it can be done. And I'm glad to hear about Poet.
That said, I was surprised to discover that sensible industry cooperation--meaning food crop producers sending their waste products to participants in the ethanol producing chain--hasn't been put into place yet. At least not in the US. Europe is way ahead of us in so many regards when it comes to green engineering and environmental considerations.
Making ethanol from food crops vs food crop wastes is a huge difference, as Dave rightly points out several times.
Justajo, Dave is correct. They are primarily a corn based producer. I think this is a way to go, but you will not end up with one feedstock in the future. The demand is very large. Remember when George W. Bush started talking about cellulosic ethanol production. He was laughed at by his critics. Well, that is a major area of research as we see here. Isn't it ironic?
Using trash from food crops--like cane trash or corn husks--to create ethanol instead of the food crops themselves is in fact being done, just not yet on a wide basis. I'm researching bioplastics for an upcoming feature, and things are further along than I'd thought, though not as far as my sci-fi imagination would like to think. Stay tuned.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.