The Bio Wilburys: ExxonMobil, REG add Clariant to monumental effort for cellulosic-to-biodiesel : Biofuels Digest


For some time, as the advanced bioeconomy has continued its pivot to deployment-scale diesel and jet fuels, there has been quite a bit of scrutiny and skepticism over the sourcing of enough sustainable feedstock to supply all the growing demand. A big part of that puzzle was addressed this week with news that Clariant, ExxonMobil and Renewable Energy Group signed a joint research agreement to evaluate the potential use of cellulosic sugars from sources such as agricultural waste and residues, ultimately to combine Clariant’s and REG’s processes into a seamless cellulosic biomass-to-biodiesel technology.

It’s not exactly the same as Dylan, Harrison, Orbison, Petty and Lynne coalescing to form the Traveling Wilburys — the count is off, for starters — but you get the idea. Something with great potential, something that no individual could have done, and all of them free to carry on with their core activities elsewhere.

And as a direction for the world’s energy economy that’s never been quite in the spotlight it deserved, the Wilbury’s aptly observed in their rollicking Handle with Care:

Been beat up and battered ’round

Been sent up, and I’ve been shot down

You’re the best thing that I’ve ever found

Handle me with care

Sugars to biodiesel — that was the essence, years ago, of the vision that led to the founding of LS9 by Jay Keasling, Chris Somerville and George Church, and in which venture the noted bioeconomy R&D pioneer Steve del Cardyre labored for a number of years. Ultimately LS9 pivoted off in search of higher-value chemicals applications, and was acquired by Renewable Energy Group where it was re-branded REG Life Sciences under Eric Bowen’s regional direction (he, originally of Tellurian Biodiesel himself).

The challenge

For that venture — for everyone chasing the conversion of sugars-to-fuels in any process or country, the question long ago began to center around the cost of the underlying sugars. Cane sugar just wasn’t available at a low enough price, lo these many years, to support the introduction of sugars-to-biodiesel technology, and availability and sustainability concerns have plagued most discussions of relying on corn sugars. The easy answer has been cellulosic sugars, but finding a process that produces them effectively and affordably, training REG’s bugs to use cellulosic sugars, and integrating those processes together, has been anything but easy.

The pace picks up

In January 2016, there was new action to watch. ExxonMobil signed an agreement with REG to study the production of biodiesel through fermentation of renewable cellulosic sugars from sources such as agricultural waste. The companies agreed to extend the research program based on their positive findings and are excited to continue to jointly explore the technology’s potential for scalability.

Just last fall there was significant news from these two partners that emboldened industry hopes that the search for cellulosic-to-biodiesel was about to turn a corner. In November, ExxonMobil and REG announced that the companies’ joint research program demonstrated the ability to convert sugars from a variety of non-edible biomass sources into biodiesel. During their initial research, the companies successfully validated the feasibility of the REG Life Sciences fermentation technology across multiple cellulosic sugar compositions produced with a variety of methods from various non-edible biomass sources. The research also confirmed REG Life Sciences technology is capable of achieving substantial reductions of full-lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional diesel fuel.

“Our first challenge during the initial research was to determine technical feasibility and potential environmental benefits,” said Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. “We’re optimistic as the results indicate good potential for advancing the technology.”

“ExxonMobil has been a great partner and we are proud of what we have accomplished to date,” said Eric Bowen, vice president of REG Life Sciences. “The Life Sciences team, led by Fernando Sanchez-Riera, senior director, Fermentation Process Development, made key discoveries in advancing the commercialization of fermenting diverse cellulosic sugars into renewable, clean burning diesel fuel. We are excited to take these discoveries to the next level. We believe our REG Life Sciences technology holds great potential as an innovation platform across multiple industries and can think of no partner better than ExxonMobil to help us realize that potential in fuels.”

Enter Clariant

But what about the sourcing of the sugars? Clariant‘s sunliquid process features chemical-free pretreatment, the integrated production of feedstock and process-specific enzymes and thus high yields of fermentable C5 and C6 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 for conversion by REG and ExxonMobil into high-quality, low-carbon biodiesel.

“Over the past three years, our work with REG has led to important advances in genetically improving REG’s proprietary microbes for a beneficial use in facilitating the conversion of cellulosic sugars into biodiesel,” said the vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company. “Applying Clariant’s expertise and knowledge,” noted Exxon’s Swarup, “will help us better understand and advance a key stage in the overall cellulosic conversion process, and hopefully lead to the development of scalable biodiesel technology.”

“We are committed to innovation and R&D, together with a focus on sustainability, as main pillars of Clariant’s strategy. Our sunliquid technology platform is a key outcome of this commitment. We are proud that two strong allies in the biofuels industry have selected Clariant as their partner and are excited to work with them on further leveraging this unique technology for converting cellulosic biomass to fuels and chemicals, including biodiesel,” said Christian Kohlpaintner, member of Clariant’s executive committee.

“Biofuels today are made largely from food sources, such as corn and sugar cane,” said Swarup. “ExxonMobil is challenging that paradigm by exploring a portfolio of large-scale biofuels solutions that do not compete with food and water. Our work with REG Life Sciences has been critical to better understanding the potential for converting cellulosic feedstock from agricultural waste into a commercially viable diesel fuel, as well as the lifecycle greenhouse gas implications of that process.”

The Exxon backstory

ExxonMobil is also actively researching other emission-reducing technologies, including algae biofuels and carbon capture and sequestration. In June 2017, ExxonMobil and partner Synthetic Genomics, Inc. announced a breakthrough in joint research into advanced biofuels involving the modification of an algae strain that more than doubled its oil content without significantly inhibiting the strain’s growth.

In 2016, ExxonMobil announced its partnership with Connecticut-based FuelCell Energy, Inc. to advance the use of carbonate fuel cells to economically capture carbon emissions from natural gas power plants while generating hydrogen and additional electricity. Since 2000, ExxonMobil has spent about $8 billion to develop and deploy lower-emission energy solutions across its operations.

The Clariant backstory

In September, we reported that Clariant officially started construction of the first large-scale commercial sunliquid plant for the production of cellulosic ethanol made from agricultural residues.

This followed on from news that “Clariant sunliquid technology delivers low carbon intensity score of 15 gCO2/MJ for the cellulosic ethanol produced using sunliquid technology from agricultural residues feedstock such as corn stover and wheat straw which is more than 6 times lower than the carbon intensity of gasoline.”

More on the technology in our Multi-Slide Guide, here.

The REG backstory

We reported in November that Phillips 66 and Renewable Energy Group, Inc. announced that planning is underway for the construction of a large-scale renewable diesel plant on the U.S. West Coast.

The plant would utilize REG’s proprietary BioSynfining technology for the production of renewable diesel fuel. Planned feedstocks include a mix of waste fats, oils and greases, including regionally-sourced vegetable oils, animal fats and used cooking oil. The new facility would be constructed adjacent to the Phillips 66 Ferndale Refinery in Washington state. The Ferndale Refinery offers existing infrastructure, including tank storage, a dock, and rail and truck rack access.

And in December we reported that Tesoro EVP and former Sapphire Energy CEO C.J. Warner has been named chief exec of Renewable Energy Group. As we observed then, Natives are restless, which is to say shareholders. Being an incredibly well-operated company in a fast-growing space is not as attractive to them as it should be, but it’s tough to fire investors. And the company is operating too strongly to hope that anyone can work a miracle from the inside by simply boosting productivity.  There’s not much upside left in performance, but there’s upside in REG Life Sciences, feedstock and restructuring policy risk. None of which is easy to do — but anyone who’s been around CJ as part of the “Beyond Petroleum” generation that advanced at BP under Lord Brown, or her subsequent years bringing Sapphire Energy from a great idea to an at-scale reality, or her work taking Tesoro (or Andeavor, take your pick) into the world if renewable with relationships with Fulcrum, Ensyn and the acquisition of Virent, will be of great cheer. She’s a winner.”

The Bottom Line

Three industry giants, one partnership — each with capital, technology, REG and ExxonMobil obviously experienced not only in technology development but in deployment and operations. Now joined by Clariant, for which this follows on from the groundbreaking of its sunliquid commercial plant in Romania.

It’s a huge scope in front of the partners, and gigantic and advantaged markets all along the US and Canadian west coast and wherever low-carbon fuels standards are employed — not to mention the large US and European markets with the RFS and RED volumetric biofuels requirements — and Europe more focused than ever on advanced biofuels such as these.

The questions — will this reach fuel-scale economics, and when? How will this R&D partnership translate — should and when that milestone is reached — into commercial-scale production, and operated by whom and upon what terms? Much remains to be seen.

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