Supercritical water could lead to biomass-to-fuel conversion on a large scale

This diagram illustrates how Renmatix's Plantrose Process uses water in its supercritical state to create cellulosic sugar from biomass. Animated version available at Image credit: Renmatix

( -- Converting agricultural waste into vehicle fuel has so far been an enticing yet elusive endeavor, at least on the industrial scale. But recently the Georgia-based company Renmatix has taken steps toward this goal by opening a research and development center in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The company will attempt to produce an efficient and cost-effective method for extracting the sugars from cellulosic biomass, which can consist of wood chips, switchgrass, and other non-edible parts of crops. The sugars can then be converted into motor fuels such as ethanol or feedstock chemicals.

The biggest difference between Renmatix’s technology and that of others is that, while its competitors have tried various combinations of steam, acid and expensive enzymes to convert the into fuel, Renmatix uses compressed hot water. The water is at a pressure and temperature that is so high that the water is in a “supercritical” state of matter. Supercritical water has been previously used in industrial applications including coffee decaffeination and pharmaceutical processes, but not in a biomass-to-fuel process at a significant scale.

“The process breaks down a wide range of non-food biomass in seconds, uses no significant consumables and produces much of its own process energy,” the company stated in a press release. “Current methods of breaking down biomass require expensive enzymes or harsh chemicals, and can take up to three days to yield sugars. With its water-based approach, Renmatix is able to provide cellulosic sugar affordably and on large-scale.”

At a pilot plant in Kennesaw, Georgia, the company has scaled its process to convert three tons of woody biomass to sugars per day. By locating its newest plant in the greater Philadelphia area, the company hopes to attract potential employees with material science and engineering skills to increase this rate.

Among Renmatix’s supporters is board member John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers who is well known for his early investments in Amazon, Google, Sun Microsystems and other tech companies. Investors are interested because cellulosic biomass technology could potentially provide a cheaper, cleaner source of energy than gasoline, as well as reduce the country’s reliance on oil. More abundant than corn and without the downside of diverting food resources, cellulosic biomass looks promising, as long as it can be scaled up and commercialized. While earlier technologies have proven successful on the small scale, the biggest challenge holding them back has been the difficulty involved in large-scale production at competitive prices.

"In the twentieth century, petroleum was the basis for making materials, chemicals and fuels," said Mike Hamilton, CEO of Renmatix. "In the twenty-first century, sugar is replacing petroleum as the raw material for those industries. Renmatix will provide those sugars faster and cheaper than anyone else."

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More information:
via: Renmatix press release and The New York Times

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Oct 03, 2011
this technology looks similar to that technology that that turned turkey offal's into oil in the midwest. The company that did that was Changing World Technologies. They had their demo plant in Philadelphia. The turkey offal plant in the Midwest ran into all kinds of problems including the smell of the plant.

Changing World Technology filed for bankrupsy a couple years back. I hope this company does better and comes with deep pockets. Sounds like they have significant backing. I can't say that I understand the details of the technology. Changing World Technology used temperature and pressure to do the job. This company looks like they're just relying on temperature.

Oct 03, 2011
I hope this is not what we can expect for a dependable future energy source.

Oct 03, 2011
Mass balance analysis please? Sounds like it might be negative.

Oct 03, 2011
who the hell puts vegetation in their washing machine?

Oct 03, 2011
Hopper - I remember Changing World Technologies, takes a special kind of arrogance to name your company like that. Their tech was very similar though. Makes you wonder who bought the intellectual property in the bankruptcy auction. I always thought they had a decent concept that had a shot.

Oct 03, 2011
'expensive catalysts'. yea, this is not an article , it is an advertisement for a water (not to mention energy) intensive process. biomass is a tricky dick and it will require enzymes and other 'smart' pretreatments to do it efficiently.

supercritical water? wtF!!!! not only is this dangerous adn requires expensive capital equipment requiring a large scale to work, but it requires a lot of heat, which costs BTU's! if youre getting that from your biomass, you're consuming all your energy supply. call me skeptical. simple brute force answers are usually not the most efficient for distributed problem solving, and biomass plants need to work at small scale in many locations to be close to the biomass itself.

that said, there is a need fro procession waste biomass from big cities which is NOT being met. and straight pyrolosis doesn't seem like the most efficient way to go in the long run. too many useful and profitable industrial chemicals can be pulled out of the treatment process.

Oct 04, 2011
you would think that cogeneration next to a nuclear powerplant could provide ample hot presurised water and electricity

Oct 04, 2011
not only is this dangerous adn requires expensive capital equipment requiring a large scale to work, but it requires a lot of heat, which costs BTU's!

I believe it uses less heat than other gasification processes. SCW is reached at 374 C and 22.1 MPa. Where the biggest problem will be, for the long term, is corrosion. SCW is quite powerful and I don't believe there is a good enough material to withstand it's ability to just eat away at surfaces, yet. The O&M costs will be the greater barrier.

If harnessed though, we may find SCW to have plenty of helpful uses.

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