Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. and Rohm and Haas Company are collaborating on a three-year project to determine if energy crops planted for cellulosic ethanol could simultaneously produce methacrylate monomers, a key raw material used in the manufacture of many products including paint and coatings, building materials, and acrylic sheet and resins.
More than 1.5 billion pounds of methacrylate monomers are produced annually in the United States, a market worth $780 million. Successful development of a bio-based process could one day displace as many as 280 million gallons of oil annually with a renewable source.
Molecular biologists and biochemistry experts at Ceres say that some plants naturally produce compounds similar to methacrylate monomers, but do not necessarily accumulate them in extractable forms or quantities. They believe it may be feasible to alter the way plants produce these compounds so that they can be extracted from the dried stalks, stems and leaves before these are fed into biorefineries producing ethanol from cellulose.
Ceres President and CEO Richard Hamilton says the potential production of co-products may encourage greater investments in biorefineries capable of producing ethanol from cellulose.
Getting the cellulosic ethanol industry up and running will take significant investments and the bigger the prize at the end, the better. Methacrylate monomers are a compelling co-product due to the significant market size, feasibility of plant-based production and the fact that it is currently derived from oil and natural gas.—Richard Hamilton
Steve Bobzin, Ph.D., Ceres’ principal investigator on the grant, says that the research will focus first on producing methacrylate monomers and similar compounds in a model plant with well-understood metabolic pathways. Successful traits would then be applied to energy crops. Funding for this project was provided by USDA and DOE’s 2006 Biomass R&D Initiative grant program, which has targeted $17.5 million for 17 biomass projects. (Earlier post.)
Separately, Ceres received a second $1.5 million grant under the program to double switchgrass yields by 2020. Switchgrass is one of the top feedstocks being considered for cellulosic ethanol production.
Ceres is a developer of high-yielding energy crops that can be planted as feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol production. Its development efforts cover switchgrass, miscanthus, poplar and others. Founded in 1997 as a plant genomics company, Ceres holds the largest proprietary collection of fully sequenced plant genes, including more than 75,000 genes and 10,000 gene promoters.
Also separately, Segetis, a privately held green chemistry company, last week secured $15 million in Series A funding from Khosla Ventures. Segetis is developing a new versatile functional monomer platform from low-cost renewable sources.