Wide Depth of Field
Mascoma Corp. has set its sights on a variety of feedstocks to complete its mission—develop a simple, cost-efficient process to commercially produce cellulosic ethanol. The company is considering everything from grass and wood to agricultural and forestry waste to fuel its ventures, the first of which will be a demonstration-scale facility in New York.
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Today, with the resurgence of interest in renewable energy, two industry pioneers have parlayed their commitments and research into a business to produce cellulosic ethanol. The result is Mascoma Corp., cofounded in 2005 by cellulosic researchers, longtime colleagues and friends Lee Lynd, chief scientific officer and board member, and Charles Wyman, a consultant and chairman of Mascoma's scientific advisory board. The company is poised to break ground on a demonstration-scale facility, in Rochester, N.Y., before mid-year and be operational 10 months to a year later.
The planned 500,000 gallon per year, 15,000-square-foot plant will likely be converted from an existing facility on or near property owned by Genencor International Inc., a partner that will develop and supply advanced enzyme systems for the conversion of a variety of biomass feedstocks to ethanol. Mascoma's corporate offices are in Cambridge, Mass., and its research and development labs are in the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center in Lebanon, N.H.
Mascoma's goal is to produce cellulosic ethanol using its consolidated "one pot" bioprocessing technology, and to draw on deployment and development strategies to reduce complexities and costs, Chief Technology Officer Andrew Richard tells EPM. "We are very focused on driving down the capital and operating costs of cellulosic ethanol production," says Richard, who came to Mascoma after spending more than 10 years with SunOpta BioProcess Group.
The idea to start Mascoma was hatched in the summer of 2005 during a conversation that took place on the back porch of Wyman's summer home on Mascoma Lake, in Enfield, N.H., Lynd says. The discussion was between Wyman and Robert Johnsen, another cofounder who is no longer with Mascoma. "They kind of thought, 'There must be a way to get a company going in this area,'" Lynd says. "Charlie said, 'Why don't you talk to Lee Lynd?' I spoke to them, we went out and met [venture capitalist] Vinod Khosla, and he said the same afternoon, 'Let's do this.' One thing has led to another, and here we are."
The World Wants Biofuels
Lynd believes the inherent uncertainties of making fuel from biomass materials made it less than attractive to venture capitalists for a long time. "Renewable energy is now sort of a darling area to the investment community," he says. "I think there was a long time when venture capitalists looked toward the future and couldn't get a very affirmative answer to the question: Will the world want biofuels? All of the sudden, due to a combination of factors, the answer is yes. Investors figure the field still has a lot of uncertainties, but a company that's successful in leading the charge toward this is going to be valuable, and therefore the investment will be rewarded."
Lynd's dedication to renewable energy has been unwavering. He wrote his college senior thesis on cellulosic biomass in 1978, and has been working in the field ever since. "I've been singularly concerned with energy," he says. "My sense is that the challenge of a transition to a world supported by sustainable resources is one of the defining challenges of our time. To my way of thinking, the only solutions are going to take a lot of lead time. Markets don't always anticipate well."
It was that kind of perseverance and dedication that won Mascoma the support of some top-flight investors. It raised $39 million in capital financing from Khosla Ventures, Flagship Ventures and General Catalyst Partners. The state of New York awarded the company $14.8 million in matching incentive funds to develop of a test center to study a range of feedstocks relevant to the state.
New York State Agricultural Commissioner Patrick Brennan views the development and commercialization of cellulosic ethanol as a growth industry for the state and an ideal approach to further capitalize on the state's resources, reduce dependence on foreign energy sources and benefit the environment, he says.
"It was a long wait but it's nice to have much more of the world with me than used to be the case," Lynd says. "It is kind of gratifying to have stubbornly toiled along, and all of a sudden—and it is relatively sudden still—have the world get very interested." Lynd was a graduate student when he met Wyman in 1984. "[Wyman] was and still is a leader in the field," Lynd says. "When we were collecting leaders in the field in Mascoma to try to do something new, it was natural to involve Charlie. These are old relationships between the few people who kept at this."
Beyond the Lab
One challenge in cellulosic ethanol production is that there's not a great deal of experience in actually taking the learnings and the processes out of the lab and scaling them up to commercial or precommercial scale, Richard says. "Our somewhat unwritten motto is, 'You don't know and you don't learn until you actually build a plant,'" he says.
Finding low-cost enzymes is also a challenge. Unlike corn-based ethanol production, which uses bakers yeast and is comparatively inexpensive, cellulosic ethanol production requires genetically modified organisms that are expensive, Richard says. Suppliers have done a fair amount of work to drive down the cost, but the enzymes are still expensive. Another challenge is that the capacity required to supply enzymes to support cellulosic ethanol doesn't exist. Mascoma's one-pot strategy works on organisms that produce their own enzymes. "Essentially, after pretreatment, we do enzyme production, enzymatic hydrolysis and fermentation all in one step with one organism," Richard says.
There are a lot of raw materials available, such as hardwood or softwood chips, corn stover, straws, switchgrass and dedicated energy crops. There are also different pretreatment processes and technology platforms within consolidated bioprocessing that Mascoma can work on, Richard says. "We need a place to do that because, ultimately, as we build commercial plants and develop organisms, we need a way to prove-out and scale-up processes," he says.
Mascoma is distinctive among commercial players in the biomass or cellulosic ethanol field because while the emphasis is on projects and getting industrial facilities installed and operating, it's also focused on developing new technologies, Lynd says. "We see that there is a tremendous synergy in doing both of those at once, well," he says.
In order for that synergy to work, however, it requires an extensive amount of knowledge. Wyman surmises that there are only a few people who have been in cellulosic research longer or have broader range of experiences than he. "I dabbled in the field while [I was] a professor at the University of New Hampshire in the 1970s," he says. He went on to lead research and development on cellulosic ethanol at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, BC International and Dartmouth College. Currently, he is the Ford Motor Company professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of California-Davis. Wyman is also an adjunct professor of engineering at Thayer College of Engineering at Dartmouth College.
Richard agrees that the cellulosic ethanol research field is made up of a small fraternity. "Funny as it sounds, this industry doesn't have a lot of venerable people in it because, for the most part, there's been research done for a long time, but in committing it to practice, people haven't been seriously looking at it for more than about 10 years, which is about the length of time I have been involved in it," Richard says. "I'm one of the elder statesmen in the industry."
Lynd leads the largest academic group in the United States devoted to biomass conversion, encompassing biotechnology, process engineering, and energy and environmental public policy issues. Through an exclusive license with Dartmouth, Mascoma has access to substantial scientific breakthroughs from Lynd's group. He is responsible for the strategic direction of the new technology part of Mascoma's business and also supervises a group at Dartmouth that function as a scout. "We investigate new things kind of in front of where Mascoma's real attention is but try to have a pipeline of new opportunities coming to them," Lynd says.
Mascoma has a consortium of supporters, including the International Paper Co., Clarkson University, Cornell University and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The collaboration will support Clarkson's faculty and students in its ongoing bioenergy lifecycle analysis work and evaluation of suitable sustainability of these types of projects and investments, according to Susan Powers, a Coulter School of Engineering professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam. N.Y.
Nathanael Greene, NRDC senior policy analyst, is supportive of Mascoma's ethanol mission. "Cellulosic ethanol promises to contribute significantly to rural economic development and to a sustainable renewable energy future," he says. "It's important that this technology is proven in real-world settings and in regions where neither corn nor sugarcane predominate the agricultural production system. Developing cellusloic ethanol for New York will have a measurable positive impact on farmers' income and greenhouse gas emissions in the state."
Jan Tellmann is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com or (701) 746-8385.