Ethanol production has skyrocketed into a $50 billion industry. But, there’s a catch. This clean-burning fuel is typically extracted from corn and sugarcane – two commodities that hold a crucial position in the global food supply.
Edeniq offers a unique solution. The California based company has developed proprietary technology that can produce sugars from non-food agricultural waste at a remarkably low cost. It could be a game changer for the entire biofuel industry.
Edeniq’s technology is designed to seamlessly integrate with a manufacturer’s existing operations. “There has been $40 billion put into the biofuel industry here and Brazil alone,” CEO Brian Thome explains. “So the goal is to [complement] those assets without having a huge capital expense; you do that by incrementally adding technologies that are beneficial to what is already there. That is one of the core attributes of our technology.”
Edeniq’s incremental approach means that the industry doesn’t have to scrap all of the investment that has already gone into developing biofuel production processes. Instead, manufacturers can affordably transition from utilizing corn and sugarcane to utilizing non-food plant materials. “The company’s foundation was built around taking existing infrastructure… the steel and concrete that is already in the ground, and making it more efficient,” says Mr. Thome.
The concept sounds simple enough, but extracting sugars from cellulose – the basic building blocks of plant material – is a surprisingly difficult endeavor. “The difficulty is in the breakdown of the materials. If you think about a branch on a tree while it is green and growing, if you try and break that branch in half it is very fibrous; it is very hard to pull apart. Those fibers – everything that holds the cellulosic material together – are very tightly bound. That makes it difficult to break down.”
One common approach is to use acid hydrolysis to break down the plant material. “They basically throw everything into a tank and add acid with the goal of breaking down the material,” Mr. Thome explains. “But the introduction of acid has some deleterious effects on the production. It really makes it more difficult to work with because the acid itself has to be cleaned up.” Other competitors use supercritical pressures and temperatures to push a substance beyond its critical point in order to break it down.
The team at Edeniq believes that they have found a better way to tackle the problem. “A lot of people are using acid or other production processes to break down materials, but we have purposely stayed away from those technologies in our cycle because it is very expensive to clean up acid from a cellulosic stream. Likewise, to build a large scale plant that breaks down plants using a supercritical approach is also very expensive – not only the capital costs but also the operating cost.
“The process itself isn’t complex,” Mr. Thome says of Edeniq’s solution, which integrates mechanical and biological processes. “We don’t use acid; we don’t use supercritical pressures. We break it down mechanically. Some of our core equipment is designed around really fine chopping or shearing, like a big slurry blender. We are able to take these materials and break them down into very, very small particles, but we are able to do it in a very clean environment that makes the sugars more productive for other products.”
The team felt it was essential to develop an approach that would be more cost effective than the standard. “There are competitors out there who can add [technology to a] production facility for anywhere from $15 million to $30 million dollars for example, but our technology can be added for $2.5 million to $5 million.” The target customer, therefore, is a manufacturer looking for a quick return on new technology that will expand and increase the efficiency of an operation.
Founded only seven years ago, Edeniq has already earned a spot on Biofuels Digest’s list of top 50 companies. Mr. Thome says that a range of factors helped the company snag the recognition. “The growth of the company and the ability of our company to add incremental value for a whole lot of customers, whether they are agribusiness or biofuel, certainly has helped us.” Edeniq’s insistence on taking a business approach to biofuel production has also been key. “There are a lot of companies that have ideas around how they can enhance plants or develop a technology, but we have taken the approach of getting to market quickly with commercial products that have benefit to customers.”
This means setting a goal and seeing it all the way through, even when the going gets tough. “We have an attitude inside of our company that has always been to buckle down and make things work,” Mr. Thome says. “The last ten percent of the process in development is the hardest mile. It is how you take that process, that technology, that product, and make it work for a customer. [It is] that relentlessly commercial approach that has certainly allowed us to penetrate the market and grow a product line.”
This “relentlessly commercial” approach is not always present within the industry, and more than a few good ideas have never made it to the commercial phase. “If you look at our industry as a whole, it has struggled with those scale ups, those periods in which a technology is proven at the piloting scale,” Mr. Thome points out. “You go to the demonstration scale, then from the demonstration scale into the commercial scale – and those two valleys have been very, very difficult for companies. So we took the approach of scaling very, very carefully.”
Currently Edeniq is working with a partner in Brazil on the construction of a demonstration scale facility that shows the benefits of using the company’s technology. “Really it is that next scale up,” Mr. Thome remarks. “We take a side stream of their process and utilize our technologies to turn it into sugars and add those sugars back into their existing facility. That is the next step in commercialization.”
And, of course, this is just the beginning. “The neat thing about sugars is that sugars have multiple uses, not just for ethanol or a specific biofuel. They can be made into a number of different chemicals and other downstream products and we feel, as an industry, there is a very large opportunity – as long as it is cost competitive – to continue to grow the cellulosic sugar space,” shares Mr. Thome.
Edeniq plans to be first in line to take advantage of this growing space. “We have been very steady around developing products and introducing them to the market,” Mr. Thome points out. “We are not a one trick pony. We don’t just have one product or one process technology upon which we have to bank everything. We have taken the approach of developing an end-to-end process, and then looking at how we can pull unique and individual steps out of that process, whether it is mechanical equipment or a specific technology application that we can then deploy elsewhere. That has certainly been the hallmark of [our] relentlessly commercial company and where we continue to see ourselves developing.”
Armed with game changing technology and a “relentlessly commercial” attitude, the team is more than ready to continue pushing the industry forward.