Lignol, Novozymes make progress on hardwood-to-ethanol process

By Kris Bevill | March 21, 2011

Vancouver-based Lignol Energy Corp. announced that its subsidiary, Lignol Innovations Ltd., has successfully completed a 2,500-liter enzyme optimization run at its hardwood-fed pilot plant in Burnaby, British Columbia, using Novozymes’ specially developed enzymes. Novozymes has been collaborating on research and development with Lignol since June 2010. The companies are working to develop a cellulosic ethanol process that will produce the fuel for approximately $2 per gallon.

Lignol President and CEO Ross MacLachlan said the recent trial run was conducted to test the effectiveness of Novozymes’ latest enzyme strains and the modifications made to them to be compatible with Lignol’s substrate. Likewise, Lignol’s substrate needed to be tested against the enzymes. The emphasis of the test was on the effectiveness of the process rather than cost, he said, and the outcome of the test was positive. “It showed us we were right on track and, in some respects, even a little better,” he said. “We felt we exceeded our interim targets of what we were trying to achieve in terms of effectiveness.”

Novozymes and Lignol executives are currently drawing up the work plan for the next phase of the project, which will be focused on driving down the cost of production. MacLachlan said the ultimate price point goal remains $2 per gallon for cellulosic ethanol, though he emphasized that Lignol’s ability to diversify its revenue stream through various co-products makes the cost of enzymes less critical to the company’s bottom line.

“We’re prepared to suffer a slight 5 to 10 percent decrease in the yield of our ethanol if it represents an overall increase in our revenues by 15 to 20 percent because of the increase of the chemical values,” he said. “In looking at it that way, we see our type of process as being a technology to enable cellulosic ethanol to come to the market in a commercially viable way in the interim. It may take much longer for the enzyme companies to get their costs down. If it takes longer we don’t want to be waiting to go commercial. We want to be commercial as quickly as we can.”

Lignol’s process includes an expensive pre-treatment step that fractionates biomass into separate streams of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, enabling the company to produce a variety of high value products, including furfural, acetic acid and a trademarked lignin, known as HP-L. “Ethanol is actually a coproduct,” MacLachlan said. “It’s those chemicals which, when we get those high values, we’re left with a cost profile on the production of our C6 sugars that makes more sense. We don’t want to pay a high price for enzymes, but we can afford to make cellulosic ethanol with enzyme costs that are higher than we’d like them to be because of our other revenues.”

The successful test of the effectiveness of Novozymes’ enzymes and Lignol’s substrate is an important step towards establishing Lignol’s first commercial project, which is to be located in the United States. The next several months will be focused on reducing production costs and locating a suitable site for the first commercial plant, which will range in capacity from 1 MMgy to 5 MMgy. The U.S. DOE awarded Lignol a $30 million grant in 2008 which could still be available to support the construction of the commercial plant.