Chinese company uses enzymes to make cellulosic ethanol for chemical industry

Special to E&E  • Posted: Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Danish enzyme producer Novozymes’ vision of a chemical industry based on agricultural rather than oil products took a small step forward as a Chinese company announced it would start making cellulosic ethanol from plant matter for use in solvents and biochemicals.

Shengquan Group will start production next month using Novozymes technology, the two companies said.

“Shengquan is a global first mover in this industry, which is on the verge of materializing right now,” said Poul Ruben Andersen, vice president for bioenergy at Novozymes. “Shengquan has profound experience in chemical production and is a leading company in commercializing cellulosic ethanol. Novozymes is proud to join Shengquan in nurturing a green and circular bioeconomy which lessens the dependence on fossil fuel resources.”

Shengquan, based in the Shandong Province city of Jinan, was founded in 1979. With 3,200 employees and a yearly turnover of about $700 million, the company focuses on the foundry material industry and the phenolic industry.

In foundry material, its major product is furfural, produced from xylose in corncobs. Furfural is used for furan resin, which is widely used as an adhesive in foundry materials. Shengquan has 20 percent to 25 percent global market share within furan resin.

Using technology from Novozymes, Shengquan will produce industrial ethanol from corncob cellulose. Today the cellulose is a waste byproduct of Shengquan’s existing production of furfural from corncob xylose. The cellulose part of the corncobs is left after the xylose has been extracted and will be converted into fermentable sugar with Novozymes’ enzyme technology.

Shengquan will use the sugar for industrial ethanol, which will be used in solvents and other purposes. Shengquan can produce the cellulosic ethanol in a cost-effective way compared with conventional ethanol because the feedstock is a byproduct of its already existing production.

Novozymes, which was spun off from Danish diabetes care giant Novo Nordisk in 2000, is the world’s biggest producer of enzymes used in biofuels. Its CEO, Steen Riisgaard, was an environmental activist in his youth who later became involved in genetic engineering and dedicated his career to replacing dirty chemistry with clean biology.

Biofuels from garbage and straw

“Just like biofuels can provide a choice and savings, we can provide that in other areas, too: plastics and polymers based on renewable biomass, renewable chemicals instead of industrial ones,” Riisgaard said earlier this month as he accepted an award at the BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing in Orlando, Fla.

Novozymes also announced separately that it will become a partner in another advanced biofuels project, this time in western Denmark.

It was another first for the company, which previously had said it wouldn’t get involved in producing biofuels itself. Novozymes joined Denmark’s state-owned utility DONG Energy and three small local utility companies in a consortium behind Maabjerg Energy, which will design a plant that will generate biogas, advanced bioethanol, electricity and heat from household waste and straw.

The plant is expected to begin producing about 94 million cubic meters of biogas per year starting in 2016, much of which can be upgraded to natural gas, and 73 million liters (19 million gallons) of bioethanol, as well as deliver district heating for 20,000 households and electricity for several thousand homes.

“We’ve joined the consortium to help perform a pilot study of the technical and financial possibilities,” Novozymes’ Andersen said. “Maabjerg is a concrete example of how waste biomass can replace fossil fuels. It’s too early to put a number on the potential for this technology, but it’s big.”

He added, “This is not a sign that we will become a producer of biogas or bioethanol going forward. But it’s a business potential for us, and we want to support it.”