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Inside the alliance between REG, ExxonMobil and Clariant that is revolutionising cellulosic biofuels.

What’s the old saying? “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Most of us that have worked as a part of an effective project can relate to this, and few of the major successes that we have covered on our pages feature a company acting unilaterally. So we are happy to report a major update to an alliance between three major companies focused on advancing cellulosic biofuels, and speak exclusively to one of its key figures, Fernando Sanchez-Riera, Vice President Research And Development at Renewable Energy Group (REG) Life Sciences.

Fernando’s company, REG, is best known for providing cleaner, lower carbon intensity products and services, in particular biomass-based diesel, renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels. In January 2016, they signed an agreement with energy giant, ExxonMobil, to study the production of biodiesel through fermentation of renewable cellulosic sugars from sources such as agricultural waste. Fast forward three years: they have now been joined by one of the world’s leading speciality chemicals companies, Clariant, to further optimise this bio-conversion process.

Before we share a focus of what comes next, I ask Fernando for some insight into the origins of the project: “We’ve partnered with ExxonMobil for over three years now. Previously we had developed a process to produce biodiesel from pure sugars and done some research into the feasibility of our fermentation technology in the use of cellulosic sugars.

In the first phase of our work with ExxonMobil we tested sugars from various non-edible biomass sources including agricultural waste, provided to us by several companies working in the area of hydrolysis of cellulosic biomass with different technologies. This research not only confirmed the feasibility of applying our fermentation technology to these sugars, but also that the technology is capable of achieving substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Research and development.

“A key aspect of our research and development, which was sharpened further when we partnered with ExxonMobil, was the issue of broad applicability and scale. A main objective of the project is to develop a process that can use different biomasses as feedstock, so it can be deployed around the world, and that those cellulosic sugars can be fermented into renewable diesel fuel in large quantities. At this stage in the program, the aspect of sustainability is paramount, but to achieve commercial success in the future, we have to be able to deliver both scale and performance”, added Fernando.

When ExxonMobil signed an agreement with REG in 2016, their aim was to broaden and extend the research to make it an applicable reality. With a heritage in fossil fuels that has made them the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, ExxonMobil is seeking further diversification and greater sustainability. With biofuels today being largely made from food sources, such as corn and sugar cane, and the focus on using cellulosic biomass for the production of ethanol, the work that REG has been doing in developing a heavier biofuel, in the diesel range, using agricultural waste is particularly attractive.

This solution is a propriety technology that relies on microbes to convert cellulosic sugars into biodiesel in a one-step fermentation process. And now the duo developing this has become a trio, with Clariant joining as a partner.

The sunliquid process.

The new agreement will allow ExxonMobil and REG to further optimise their work by using Clariant’s sunliquid process. They feel like the perfect partner, as Clariant already has existing integrated technologies and solutions for converting agricultural residue. Their sunliquid process features chemical free pre-treatment, the integrated production of feedstock, and process-specific enzymes that delivers high yields of fermentable sugars.

Clariant will conduct trials at its pre-commercial plant in Straubing, Germany using different types of cellulosic feedstock that will be converted into sugars. These sugars will be the raw material in the fermentation process used by REG and ExxonMobil to produce a high-quality, low-carbon biodiesel.

This story first featured in Issue 13 of the Bio Market Insights Quarterly, click the image to download.

“This is an exciting time for the project, and we are getting into a position to see the results of our long-term commitment. We’ve had a vision of mass production from the first day of this project, and working with first ExxonMobil and now also Clariant, will move us all closer to our ultimate objective of seamless cellulosic biomass-to-biodiesel technology” states Fernando on this latest development.

“…the more integrated the process, the smaller the carbon footprint.”

It’s been great to track this partnership so far – we’ll be sure to continue to update you as it optimises and develops the process further. The three are also now working on a conceptual engineering study to validate the feasibility of the integrated process comprising the technologies of all parties. This will help not just the commercial aspects but also its environmental positives, as Fernando neatly describes it, “the more integrated the process, the smaller the carbon footprint.”

Before we conclude, throughout the conversation it becomes obvious what a true partnership this is and the positivity that Fernando feels about it, so I ask him for some advice to our readers seeking to develop similarly fruitful alliances: “I think it’s key to have a common vision from the very start. And this vision being a long term one. Developments in our industry don’t happen overnight, so I’d also recommend patience and the setting of realistic and honest targets. And of course, it is about the people. Here at REG, it’s great to be surrounded by young scientists coming into work every day, excited about what they are doing and wanting to make a difference to the world and its future.”

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________You may also be interested in… 

Read: Expert View: Growing the Irish forest bio-economy.

Read: Neste teams up with Clariant to develop green materials.

Read: DowDuPont mulls sale of biomaterials arm.

Visit: SynBio Markets (Berlin, 18-19 November 2019) 

NEW!: And available to download issue #13 of the Bio Market Insights Quarterly

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