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By Robert Rapier on Sep 17, 2009 with no responses

Another “New” Thermochemical Approach

Thanks to a reader for bringing this story to my attention:

Segetis: Making a Brand New Biochemical

The Minnesota-based startup turns cellulosic biomass into something called levulinic ketal, a brand-new molecule that can be made into a host of industrial chemicals.

Segetis wants to make mixed biomass into a hitherto unknown chemical, and turn it into a variety of industrial chemicals. That could give it an entrée to the trillion-dollar global chemical market, if it can scale up to the task.

Thanks to a $15 million investment from Khosla Ventures, doled out in $5 million per year increments starting in 2007, the two-year-old startup has started making its new chemical – levulinic ketal – at a 300,000 pound-per-year test plant that opened in January, CEO Jim Stoppert said Wednesday.

Just to clarify, “brand new” ignores a lot of history. I have seen this many times before. A few years ago “ethanol from cellulose” was all the rage. This “brand new” process was going to end our dependence from foreign oil. In fact, cellulosic ethanol was commercialized in the U.S. a hundred years ago. Today’s efforts are mostly variations on that 100-year-old theme.

I can’t trace the history of levulinic ketal back 100 years, but there are substantial commercial efforts that precede the work of Segetis. A company called Biofine Renewables, LLC, of Waltham, Massachusetts started up a 1 ton per day pilot plant in 1998 to produce levulinic acid from biomass – and then built a commercial scale facility in Italy. Biofine had partnered with several branches of the U.S. government on this effort, including NREL and PNNL. You can read a bit more about their technology here.

The story above discusses levulinic “ketal”, which is produced from levulinic acid. That isn’t new either; here is a patent from 1991 that mentions the synthesis of levulinic ketal. In fact, it is very rare that something “completely novel” is invented. Almost all inventions build upon a rich body of previous work. When one reads about a “brand new biochemical”, the historical context is often lost. (If you really want to dig into the details, see the Segetis patent here, which indicates that the ketal is in fact being produced from the acid in a separate step).

Not to say that the Segetis work isn’t quite interesting. I am very interested in thermochemical processing of biomass. I think there is a brighter future there than for biochemical processing of biomass. There are also lots of interesting specialty chemicals that one can make from various thermochemical processes (like pyrolysis). Cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin are very interesting starting materials for a chemical process, and due to their complexity you might expect that some pretty novel chemicals could be built from them.

I will be interested to see what else is co-produced in the Segetis process. When you are working with biomass, because it is composed of a variety of different materials, reactions often lead to a variety of end products. I am trying to work my way through their patent, and they are laying claim to a wide variety of molecules, which I suspect are some of the co-products from the process. Their patent, by the way, has 141 claims, which is an awful lot compared to most patents I have looked at. Claims 1-22 have been canceled, however, which I suspect was because they discovered there was some history preceding the claims,