Taking Inbicon to the Next Level

Inbicon and DONG Energy A/S have been working hard, aiming to license its technology and get steel in the ground.
By Holly Jessen | July 11, 2013

After years of developing and optimizing Inbicon’s Biomass Refinery technology and talking to potential investors, Inbicon and DONG Energy A/S are poised for big things. “I think 2013 and 2014 will be the years that we get not only a project off the ground but we will get several projects off the ground,” says Henrik Maimann, vice president of the thermal power division of DONG Energy.

At the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, Maimann had a conversation with Ethanol Producer Magazine about efforts to get the first commercial-scale biorefinery utilizing Inbicon technology built. Also contributing were Benny Mai of DONG Energy, and two Leifmark LLC representatives, Paul Kamp, partner, business development, and Thomas Corle, partner, marketing, and co-founder of Leifmark LLC. Maimann and Mai are CEO and chief commercial officer of DONG Energy’s New Bio Solutions section, which developed and owns the company’s three new green technologies that include  Inbicon, as well as technologies for waste conversion and gasification. Leifmark is the company marketing and commercializing Inbicon’s technology in North America.

Although work is being done to bring the technology to the U.S., it’s not likely to be the location of the first commercial Inbicon biorefinery. In this market, the company hopes to soon move into stage two, detailed engineering, on pending projects, with construction start hoped for in 2014, Maimann says. Things are further along in Asia, where Inbicon has had a licensing agreement with Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding since early 2010. Mitsui plans to start construction in the third quarter of this year, Maimann adds. The company is also quite far along on a series of projects in China and, early this year, announced a partnership with Brazilian ETH Bioenergy. Work is also ongoing in Canada, including discussions with the Canadian government and several companies, Corle added. “Which is going to be first? Right now, it’s hard to say but we are really engaged there,” he says.

The key to building a full-scale cellulosic ethanol facility is investment. Worldwide, with the exception of in China, investors have the same question, Maimann says. What’s the future of the industry? “It’s clear that the situation we are in now, there’s a lot of things to be done in order to get the first plants up and running,” Maimann says. To facilitate a large-scale advanced biofuel industry, policy changes are needed. He pointed to something said by fellow speaker Steve Mirshak, global business director for DuPont Industrial Bioscience, during an FEW general session panel presentation on the advanced biofuel industry. In the current climate of uncertainty, the industry will have a slow liftoff rather than taking off like a rocket, Mirshak said. In the meantime, Inbicon is in discussions with investors, relieving them of any concerns on the technology and business case side, Maimann says.

Although he was unable to name names, Maimann revealed that the company has been in talks with oil companies that are working on a plan B. While movement may be slow, he predicts that once oil companies realize they will have to move beyond the 10 percent blending level, they will eventually have to invest in advanced biofuels production. “I am absolutely certain of that,” he says.

Frankly, the process has taken longer than hoped, Kamp says. “We expected in 2012, or maybe in 2011, or maybe even 2010, we would have some more things to announce,” he says. “But nobody could foresee the onslaught that has come forth from API (American Petroleum Industry) to create uncertainty in the investment in biofuels.” The 100-year drought in 2012 was another factor.

Still, DONG Energy’s commitment to commercializing the Inbicon technology has not wavered. The $10 billion company has invested more than $200 million so far and has committed to another $20 million from 2013 onward.

A key in commercializing advanced biofuels is enzyme and yeast development, the group said. To that end, Inbicon’s Denmark-based pilot and demonstration plants have been a playground for enzyme and yeast developers from multiple companies. “That has led to a fairly significant lowering of the cost of enzymes in our process,” Mai says, adding that the company has seen a more than 50 percent reduction in the past three to four years. Equally interesting, Kamp adds, are the impressive fermentation efficiency improvements on the yeast side.

Choose Your Configuration
In early June, Inbicon announced it will license its Inbicon Biomass Refinery in four commercial versions, three of which are new. Rather than separate technologies, it's different configurations of the main technology, Corle clarifies. All the versions utilize the pretreatment technology developed at Inbicon’s Denmark-based demonstration plant, which recently reached the milestone of more than 15,000 hours of operation. All four versions have the ability to produce cellulosic ethanol from a variety of feedstocks, including corn stover, various straws and grasses and more. Of interest in Malaysia is empty fruit bunch, left over from palm oil production, and in Asia, bamboo. “We are looking at almost the full spectrum of biomass,” Maimann says. “… There’s no doubt that the future for the industry is to be able to convert multiple biomasses.” The last configuration, Version 3.0, utilizes all sugar fermentation for biochemical production.

Version 1.0 is Inbicon’s basic conversion process, which uses steam, enzymes and yeast to produce about 20 MMgy ethanol, 180,000 metric tons a year of solid lignin and 185,000 metric tons a year of C5 sugars. Although there are other possible uses, the lignin can be used for on-site power generation (with excess sold to the grid) or sold to power stations. C5 sugars can be used as an animal feed or as a feedstock to accelerate anaerobic digestion of other wet biomass.

Version 2.0 offers fermentation of both C5 and C6 sugars, with up to 50 percent higher ethanol yield than version 1.0. The up-to-30 MMgy facility can be built as a greenfield ethanol plant or co-located with an existing grain-ethanol plants, allowing producers to take advantage of crop residue available in that area. The configuration also works for sugarcane-ethanol plants with bagasse as the feedstock. Because all sugars are fermented, producers won’t have access to the C5 sugar stream as a coproduct. Instead, the facility will produce vinasse, which can be used as fertilizer. A payoff for the exchange is that the facility will have a low carbon score, meaning the fuel can be sold in the most highly carbon-regulated markets. It’s all about what products are priority, Maimann says.

Version 2.1 is another all-sugar fermentation process, but this option can be integrated into an existing grain- or sugarcane-ethanol plant. Changes to the plant happen at the front-end of the process, with mechanical conditioning, hydrothermal pretreatment and enzymatic hydrolysis as the new construction, and existing equipment utilized from cellulosic fermentation on through distillation and solids removal. This allows for savings in capital expenditure and operating expenses. The grain and cellulosic fermentations are designed to run simultaneously, with a system in place to keep the distillers grains produced free from contamination from the lignin, Mai says. Depending on the price of corn, ethanol producers have the flexibility to continue producing cellulosic ethanol and periodically suspend grain-based ethanol production, Maimann adds.

The numeral system for naming the versions doesn’t indicate older technology versus newer, Mai clarifies. Customers select the best version based on location, synergies with existing industries and other factors. “It’s a flexible system that we have developed,” he says.

Clean Lignin
Inbicon’s biofuels technology came out of a biomass research project that started in 1995. The original goal wasn’t to make ethanol, Corle says. It was about preventing wheat straw from scaling power station boilers. As the company focused on developing technology to produce clean lignin from biomass, it discovered a way to ferment sugars and produce ethanol in a new way. 

Inbicon’s process does not use steam explosion in the pretreatment step and uses no additional chemicals, Maimann says. The result is a high recovery rate and clean lignin, distinguishing characteristics of the company’s technology. At first, it wasn’t really known how this would be a benefit but as time went on, the company began to see how useful it could be for energy production. Lignin can be burned to replace coal or mixed with coal with no complications, he says. It can also be stored outside. In a situation where Inbicon’s cellulosic ethanol technology is co-located or integrated into a first-generation grain-ethanol plant, burning lignin for power can reduce the facility’s carbon footprint enough to qualify a corn-ethanol plant as an advanced biofuel producer, the company calculates.

Of course, there are multiple other potential uses for lignin, Corle says. For example, there’s interest from car manufacturers looking to replace petroleum-based material for renewable interiors, such as the dashboard or car seat. “The one thing that is creating a lot of curiosity around the lignin product is, it hasn’t been available before, so it’s something in the marketplace that everybody is looking at right now, but there is no supply,” he says. “So, now that they can see a road map to that supply and they can start seeing real progress coming on board here in the U.S., they are starting to evaluate that lignin.”

Another benefit of clean lignin, produced without the use of additional chemicals such as ammonia or acids in the pretreatment step, is that it doesn’t require any additional water washing on the back-end. “The uniqueness of Inbicon’s technology is that they take a lot of those salts and metals out in the process,” Corle says.

That’s very useful in reducing water use at the facility, a valuable natural resource. In fact, Mai says, no water is needed for plant operations. “The water that comes in the biomass is enough to run the plant,” he says, "so we are recirculating the water.” In some cases, the facility may even produce excess clean water in this way, Maimann adds.

Author: Holly Jessen
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine