The brave new world of bioplastics relies in large part on fermentable sugars from plants (see Close Up on Biopolymers in this issue). Industry wants to get away from obtaining those sugars from food crops such as corn and to use instead waste plant matter and other inedible cellulosic materials, referred to collectively as “biomass.” Although there is currently no industrial-scale production of fermentable sugars from biomass, a number of firms are working toward that goal. One of them, Virdia in Redwood City, Calif., has a good chance of being first out of the gate. Last month, it announced a deal with the Mississippi Development Authority to build a plant to derive sugar from wood chips, a plentiful byproduct of the state’s forestry industry. That deal includes $75 million in low-interest loans and up to $155 million in tax incentives over a 10-yr period.
The first plant, due to start up in late 2014 or early 2015, will have capacity for 150, 000 tons (300 million lb) of sugars per year. Virdia eventually aims to build plants for 500,000 tons (1 billion lb) per year. Virdia, which has a pilot plant in Virginia, uses a patented CASE (cold acid solvent extraction) process based on a
method used first in Germany during World War II. It produces mostly C6 sugars (and some C5 types) plus pure lignin. Sugar production efficiency is said to be 95%. Virdia’s new CEO, Philippe Lavielle, says his plan for the commercial plant is to produce sugars from biomass at a cost competitive with sugar from corn at $4/bushel (today corn is $6-7/bushel). In the future, he says, the CASE process could use almost any type of biomass for which the economics and supply infrastructure are suitable.
The excitement in the air of the recent Innovation Takes Root conference was a sense of arrival.