As big businesses and consumers slowly realize that oil prices won’t drop precipitously anytime soon, biofuels and biochemicals have begun to look ever more attractive. But up until now, there hasn’t been a truly cost-effective way to to make fuel and chemicals out of biomass (i.e switchgrass, woodchips, and other nonedible crops). Enter Renmatix, a Kleiner Perkins-backed startup that emerged from stealth mode today.
In recent years, a number of companies have gotten into the cellulosic biofuel business. They have all hit a roadblock, however, in their quest to create cheap products from cellulosic biomass, which doesn’t take resources away from food production (unlike, say, corn-based biofuels). “We have discovered a fast pathway that drives favorable economics and allows us to be competitive with options from oil,” says Renmatix CEO Mike Hamilton.
While its competitors take the enzymatic approach to processing biomass–sticking the biomass in a vat with bugs, which convert the waste into fuel and other products–Renamtix simply uses pressurized water to solubilize and dissolve cellulose. The former approach can take hours or days, while Renmatix’s process takes seconds or minutes. “Speed determines economics,” says Hamilton.
Hamilton imagines that the sugars produced by its process could be used in detergents, cosmetics, paints, coatings, plastic bottles, and of course, fuel. PepsiCo’s plant-based bottle, which is made out of switchgrass, pine bark, and corn husks, would fit right in Renmatix’s wheelhouse.
But in the case of a company like PepsiCo, Renmatix wouldn’t directly sell its sugars. Instead, the startup would make the sugar and sell it to a company that makes the key chemical that needs to be compounded into plastic
for the plant-based bottle. That chemical would then be given to a compounder, who would form it into the shape of a Pepsi bottle and sell it to bottlers.
Renmatix currently has a demo facility in Georgia where it manufactures sugars. The company plans to move toward a commercial facility sometime in 2012. Eventually, the startup hopes to produce its sugars locally in biomass-rich areas. “We’re going to be where the biomass is grown. We don’t want to ship biomass,” says Hamilton.
And according to Hamilton, the market for its product will only continue to grow: “There’s a movement afoot by large consumer companies to use renewable starting
points with their products. We have a number of large companies that are very interested.”
[Image: Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography]