Advanced Bioeconomy Horizons: The 5 Top R&D Trends Right Now

November 8, 2017 | Jim Lane | Biofuels Digest


Catalytic reaction rates, microcrystalline cellulose, cyanobacteria working in teams, vertical farming, vegan products & markets. The 5 top disruptive techs we’ve seen in recent weeks are attacking these fronts. Here’s what we see:

1. Breakthrough on (microcrystalline) cellulose costs

A new source of cheap microcrystalline cellulose has been generating a lot of positive noise in that part of the R&D world that traffics in new samples coming out of labs.

Sweetwater has developed a novel pathway to a high value refined cellulose product by leveraging its Sunburst pretreatment system — developed primarily for use in the cellulosic fuels space.

If MCC is generally available at around $1450 a ton, Sweetwater’s cost is expected at scale to be at the $250 per ton mark, or less — using hardwoods as a source of the sugar.

MCC as it’s known will be a billion dollar market by 2020, according to a new report from Markets and Markets, which notes: MCC is extensively used in food products such as baked foods, dairy products, desserts, frozen foods, and others as bulking agent and fat substitute, helping in enhancing mouthfeel, body, and consistency of the food product. MCC has applications in the pharmaceutical industry as it exhibits chemical inertness and lack of taste and odor.

As an excipient, MCC is used widely in almost every kind of oral dosage like pellets, tablets, capsules, sachets, and others. Development of multifunctional excipients and co-processed excipients is also expected to play a vital role in market growth during the forecast period. This increase in demand can be attributed to the need to address the solubility issues of recently developed Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API). In the cosmetics & personal care segment, it is used as a texturizer and thickening agent. MCC is also used in instrumentations and industrial applications.

Left side is the solubilized lignin filtrate before pH adjusted – centrifuged with no solids at the bottom of the vial (top of the photo). Middle is the pH adjusted solubilized lignin filtrate – shows we re-precipitate loads of lignin! Right side of photo is the wash filtrate after pH adjust – no real additional lignin precipitating out, only residual cellulose. Means we did a great job solubilizing and recovering in the first step.

Expanding the set of suppliers?

According to Markets & Markets, the global MCC market is dominated by various market players such as FMC Corporation (U.S.), DuPont (U.S.), DFE Pharma (Germany), Asahi Kasei Corporation (Japan), and Tembec Inc. (Canada), among others.”

The breakthrough

Above: pH adjusted cellulose after the washing step – turns even whiter when pH is neutralized… Again, suggests we do a great job of solubilizing in that first pH raise.

The current industry standard for cellulose production is based on pulp and paper technology, where the main revenue stream is limited to the cellulose fraction only. The C5 sugars and the lignin are degraded to the point where they are typically burned for their low thermal value, but, you know this stuff. Sweetwater’s process utilizes all of the feedstock to yield a complete value suite, consisting of: a microcrystalline cellulose that can instantly address many large and existing markets with the future potential to use a low energy enzymatic pathway to very high value nanocellulose,

· a high quality C5 rich sugar stream that can be converted into ethanol or other high value biochemicals,
· a unique non-sulfonated lignin that can be used as a functional filler for many petroleum-based products or converted into a very high value fractionated lignin via MetGen process.

Due to the nature of the Sunburst pretreatment system, the word is that Sweetwater can maintain the value of all components of the biomass while recovering the cellulose in a more energy efficient fashion. Existing technologies use very large pressure vessels to ‘cook’ the biomass at high pressures and temperatures in order to remove the hemicellulose and lignin.

Due to the high degree of hemicellulose extraction in the Sunburst system and the small and uniform particle size of the remaining cellulose and lignin, all that has to be done in the Sweetwater cellulose recovery process is a quick and simple pH elevation at atmospheric pressures to solubilize the lignin (60 minutes).
Overall, this is an extremely easy process compared to current technologies.

And, we might add, this saves all the hemicellulose and lignin for other uses in the bioeconomy chain. Very interesting development in the higher-value product segment.

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