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SunOpta Providing Steam Explosion Technology for World’s First Cereal-Straw Ethanol Plant

Abengoa’s Babilafuente ethanol plant.

Canadian company SunOpta has closed a € 4.7-million (C$ 7.1-million, US$ 5.8-million) contract to supply its patented steam explosion equipment and process technology to a subsidiary of Abengoa for the first commercial production facility in the world to convert cereal straw into ethanol.

This 5-million-liter per year (1.3-million-gallon per year) facility, scheduled to be operational in the fall of 2006, will be built in Babilafuente (Salamanca), Spain and is located adjacent to an existing 195-million-liter (52 million gallons per year) cereal grain to ethanol plant operated by Abengoa. Abengoa is the largest ethanol producer in Europe and the second largest in the world.

The combined 200-million-liter project is partly supported by € 4.5 million (US$ 5.6 million) from the EC.

SunOpta’s Staketech Division is a world leader in the preparation, pretreatment, steam explosion and extraction of value added compounds from plant biomass material.

SunOpta had entered into a partnership in May 2004 with Abengoa R&D to develop technology for the production of ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass and from starch. Abengoa is working with Novozymes on the enzymes for the process. (Earlier post.)

The awarding of this contract follows extensive development work completed at SunOpta’s pilot plant and laboratory facilities located in Norval, Ontario.

There are a number of possible pre-treatment processes that can be applied to cellulosic biomass (such as wheat straw) to prepare the fiber for enzymatic saccharification prior to fermentation and ethanol recovery:

  • Thermo-mechanical (grinding, milling, shearing, extruder)

  • Acid treatment (Dilute or concentrated H2SO4)

  • Alkali treatment (Sodium hydroxide, ammonia, alkaline peroxide)

  • Autohydrolysis (Steam pressure, steam explosion, liquid hot water)

(Iogen, the Canadian biotech company that has focused on tailoring new enzymes to increase the yield of cellulosic ethanol, and whose wheat-straw ethanol was used in the cars at the recent G8 meeting, uses a modified steam explosion technique for pre-treatment.)

In steam explosion, biomass fiber are exposed to a high pressure steam (typically 200-450 psig) for 1 to 10 minutes. The resulting product is then explosively discharged to an atmospheric pressure.


Batch steam explosion processing is almost 75-years-old. Batch processing, however, had some limitations, and was difficult to optimize. One of SunOpta’s breakthroughs was the development of a continuous steam explosion process that supports a higher processing temperature and reduces the residence time. The process greatly reduces and in many cases eliminates the chemicals associated with current industrial practice, according to the company.



Will farm soil become hard and compact, and lose its "tilth", if plant material that was typically plowed back into the soil, is now used for fuel?


The need for soil sustainability needs to be planned for in figuring out how much biomass is available for fuel. The authors of the USDA/DOE “Billion-Ton Vision” (the use of biomass to displace 30% of current petroleum consumption (here))make a point of that.

On the agriculture side, the report touches on planting systems, residue maintenance requirements, changes in crop yield, and a number of other factors.


In the past wheat fields were often burned after the grain was harvested. In Russia and the Ukraine straw was gathered as fuel for cooking and heating. Conversion to a liquid fuel is just a new spin on centuries old practices.


Tom, the word "just" is one which may be designed to limit the image of novelty of converting straw into ethanol. In reality, converting straw, waste paper and any other form of lignocellulosic biomass to ethanol at a market competitive cost/price will be as revolutionary as oil was as it washed over Ford's Chemurgy movement like a tsunami.

Tony, as far as concerns about the soil becoming hardened through use of straw as a sugar source for ethanol, that will be a relatively minor issue compared to the soil that is built when grass is grown, which builds humus. And when that is achieved in the tropics, a major portion of gasoline will be replaced in the decentralization of fuel production to countries which stand to benefit the most in their domestic fuel market, before they begin to export. The loss of 9" of topsoil from the grain states down the Mississippi River to the Mississippi delta over the last 100 years, according to the USDA and other departments is an ongoing "invisible" problem that is far more difficult to solve than the use of straw for ethanol. I cannot help but wonder if corn could not be planted in grass fields in the "corn states" which might provide both soil protection and an early cut for biofuels before the corn grows high. And of course, the corn stalks become a doubling of the farmer's output which is wasted today.

My opinion is that a new method to convert grass into a grain equivalent will reduce the volume of corn production dramatically, because corn for cattle feed can be replaced with highly digestible grass, and ethanol production from grass will allow the same farmers to double their output with the same level of input (planting grass fencepost to fencepost), thus eliminating the need for most ag subsidies.

There is a lot more promise than problems associated with switching to grass as the main feedstock for ethanol production, which applies to the max in the 12 month growing season of many tropical countries with sufficient rainfall and relatively flat land. And growing grass where the rainforests have been decimated offers jobs to those doing the slash and burning, and a way to monitor illegal burning.

Its a new world and its time to decentralize fuel production, for a world of reasons.


R. Santhanam

09 January 2005

MKCR technology allows conventional pulping with chemicals both acid and caustic soda, since it recovers caustic soda, energy in the lignin, lime and silica as a dry precipitate.

MKCR already tried out for clean cellulose production which enables quality paper to be manufactured from high silica raw materials like rice and wheat straws, for the first time in the world.

We are getting started with the commercialisation of this technology for paper production. Simultaneously we plan to experiment in ethanol conversion starting with the clean cellulose enabled by MKCR. We are very sure of it success and expect this technology to be cheap and very competetive besides being clean.

We welcome financial investments in a project costing 12 million U.S $.


plz give the detailed information abt ethanol.

Tony Stoeckl

Att. Earnest.

I am very interested in your technology. Please contact the undersigned.

Tony Stoeckl

Paul DeLong

I worked for a number of years on the development of the steam explosion process (originally based on the masonite process).
The process is environmentally friendly and will allow you to produce multiple products. The process was patented in Canada, US and Europe. One patent for producing glucose is still active in the US.
We are looking for business partners to commercialize the process for the production of ethanol. We are two of the researchers who originally developed the explosion process.
If this interests you then please respond to [email protected]

Paul DeLong
Systems Analyst


I am actually from a different industry, but have been thinking for a long time about means to convert cellulose to liquid fuel.

I have some ideas for pre-treatment of bio mass for easier convertibility. But,since I am from a different industry, I do not have the idea on what are the practical means of treatments those have been tried and patented.

I need somebody to help me on finding a source of descriptions of available technologies. I also would be glad to have a financer who would participate in building the pilot plant and doing the research for validation. I am ready to share the patent right (if it comes out commercially successful).

My e-mail address is [email protected]

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