GraalBio announces the first cellulosic ethanol plant in the southern hemisphere

21 February 2013

A forerunner in the production of second-generation biofuels in Brazil, GraalBio is determined to become a worldwide reference in innovation for converting biomass into chemicals and fuels.

Part of the Graal Group, the biotechnology company has announced that its investment plans in Brazil will include:

  • construction of a commercial plant for the production of cellulosic ethanol
  • installation of an agricultural station to develop new cane varieties with high fibre content
  • construction of a pilot plant aiming at the development of biochemical pathways
  • establishment of a research centre for the development of genetically modified organisms, which will be used in the production of biochemicals and biofuels.

Graal Bio's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant will be the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere and is among the first such plants announced in the world. It will be constructed in Alagoas and will initially run using sugarcane bagasse and straw as feedstock, which will be eventually replaced by energy cane. The plant will work in cooperation with first-generation mills located in the state, which the company understands is an associative business model, as it complements the first-generation ethanol industry, presenting significant synergies to both sides. With a total investment of R$300m, the plant will have a nominal production capacity of 82 million litres of ethanol.

Sugarcane bagasse and straw offer the potential to expand domestic ethanol production by 35% compared with current installed capacities, presenting a potential solution to the annual ethanol deficit of 1 billion litres. This will be achieved without additional investments in land, and there will be no competition with food production.

GraalBio offers a clean and economically viable solution to maximise the productivity and competitiveness of the Brazilian ethanol.

The installation of an experimental site will expand the potential for the development of biochemicals in Brazil by developing a new type of biomass, known as energy cane.

This cane will be developed by crossing ancestral varieties of sugarcane with selected types of grasses, resulting in a hybrid that is highly productive and has low contents of sugar and high amounts of fibres per hectare. The combination of these factors, according to the company's technical team, should result in the most competitive biomass in the world. By the end of the year, the experimental site in Alagoas will produce 100,000 seedlings by crossing different germplasm lines and will carry out continuous improvements until the achievement of the expected productivity target of 100 tons of dry mass per hectare.

Brazil offers the best conditions for the development and production of biomass, positioning the country as potentially a leading player in the next biotechnology revolution, which is expected to occur in the coming years following the direct conversion of cellulose into industrial sugar, biochemicals and advanced biofuels, starting with second-generation ethanol. GraalBio believes it has the best environmental conditions to lead this race.

State-of-the-art technology

GraalBio believes that, with the advent of second-generation technologies, the current productive capacity of the sector will be greatly expanded through the use of sugarcane bagasse and the leftovers of the eucalyptus paper industry, thus giving a new dynamic to these sectors. In this regard, the technological platform of GraalBio is based on alliances with companies that own state-of-the-art technologies (for transfer or co-development), which have already been launched in the most advanced research centres of the world.

To anticipate the construction of the first cellulosic ethanol plant in Brazil, GraalBio started a collaboration with the companies Beta Renewables and Chemtex, subsidiaries of the Italian group Mossi & Ghisolfi. Chemtex has developed a unique technology called PROESA, which is used in the pre-treatment and conversion of biomass. With this technology, it is possible to convert several types of raw materials into a variety of biochemicals and biofuels.

Beta Renewables has already announced the construction of a similar-sized biorefinery with a productive capacity of 70 million litres of ethanol per year, using the same PROESA technology. This biorefinery will be located in Crescentino, Italy, and is planned to start operating in the second half of 2012. The agreement entered into with Beta Renewables, a joint venture between Chemtex and TPG Biotech, covers the codevelopment of the technology in Brazil.

The critical equipment to be installed in the Alagoas plant, which will employ the PROESA technology, has already been ordered, and production will begin in the last quarter of 2013. This technology is unique in the world, and uses the physical pre-treatment method (steam explosion) to break down the plant structures and allow the action of enzymes on the cellulose fibres. The competitive advantage of PROESA is based on the following factors:

  • flexibility to use different types of biomass, with no need to modify the equipment
  • high cellulose and hemicellulose recovery rates
  • no use of chemicals (the process only requires steam, enzymes and yeasts)
  • low capex and opex
  • low sugar degradation, decreased levels of contaminants and low concentrations of acetic acid
  • low energy consumption in the shaking process
  • biomass liquefaction in less than eight hours, using a low enzyme load
  • easy control of pH and temperature

Overall, the PROESA technology enables and simplifies the complex pre-treatment stage of converting biomass into industrial sugar, allowing the next steps of enzymatic hydrolysis (to break down the cellulose into simple sugar molecules) and fermentation (to turn sugar into cellulosic ethanol). At the Alagoas plant, the suppliers of the enzymes and industrial yeasts are Novozymes and DSM, respectively. Novozymes, a world leader in enzymes, will provide the GraalBio plant in Alagoas with its most advanced generation of enzymes. DSM will supply genetically modified yeasts that will ferment the second-generation ethanol. GraalBio considers Novozymes and DSM the top developers of enzymes and genetically modified yeasts in the world.

Pilot plant in Campinas

GraalBio will also build a pilot plant in the city of Campinas in 2012. This plant will use the PROESA technology for the development of new biochemical pathways. It will have three independent lines: one focusing on the improvement of the cellulosic ethanol technology, and the other two focusing on the development of biochemical pathways, giving priority to chemicals currently imported by Brazil. The construction of the pilot plant will allow GraalBio to play an active role as a codeveloper of cellulosic technologies, and will constitute an important platform to attract the best world-class partners.

Research centre at Unicamp

GraalBio's research centre will be built in 2012 at Unicamp in a collaboration with the same university. The technologies developed at the centre will focus on the genetic modification of Brazilian yeasts, which are considered the most robust and efficient in the world. These yeasts will be capable of quickly processing raw cellulosic material, with high yield.

GraalBio has also announced its commitment to build five more plants for the production of biochemicals by 2017. The locations of these new plants have not yet been disclosed.

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