The Swiss biofuels company Clariant is joining up with US companies ExxonMobil and the Renewable Energy Group to make biodiesel from agricultural waste.
The new partnership hopes to combine technology from the Renewable Energy Group and Clariant to produce biodiesel — a biofuel that is a mix of ethanol and fat or cooking greases. Unlike most commercial biofuels, which are produced from food crops such as corn, the partnership hopes to use agricultural waste so that the production doesn’t compete with the food industry for arable land.
Agricultural waste, such as wheat straw and rice straw, is more difficult to convert into ethanol than food crops, because it contains more cellulose and impurities, which can hinder fermentation.
Back in 2017, ExxonMobil and Renewable Energy Group’s partnership found that it would be technically feasible to produce biodiesel from cellulose sugars using microbes in a single fermentation step. Clariant is able to produce the sugars for this one-step fermentation process using enzymes that are also derived from the agricultural waste, making the process more efficient.
ExxonMobil’s vice president of research and development, Vijay Swarup, stated that the initial partnership has been “genetically improving” Renewable Energy Group’s microbes for the last three years to make the microbes better at refining sugars into biodiesel.
“Applying Clariant’s expertise and knowledge 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,” he said.
While making biofuels from non-food plants remains difficult for now, there are plenty of companies taking up the challenge. Last year, the Austrian company BDI-BioEnergy announced its plans to build an industrial biodiesel production plant based on algae. The Scottish company Celtic Renewables is building a small-scale demonstration plant to test its technology that produces biofuel from waste products from the whisky industry.
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