Just Add Water: The New Solution for Alternative Energy

Georgia-based company Renmatix claims to have made a major breakthrough in alternative energy, touting new technology that transforms non-food biomass into vehicle fuel, efficiently and inexpensively.

The secret?

Water.

Unlike other researchers’ attempts at breaking down cellulose fibers and agricultural waste with enzymes, acid, and gasification, Renmatix employs a technique called “supercritical hydrolysis.” Simply put, the method puts water at a temperature and pressure so high that it has characteristics of a gas and characteristics of a liquid, and uses it to break down cellulosic sugars. A more detailed overview of how the process works can be found on the company’s website.

The new technology, dubbed the Plantrose™ Process by Renmatix, provides a cheaper, simpler, and more controlled alternative to previous methods. According to the company, the technique speeds the conversion process, reduces waste and consumption, and creates a higher yield of carbon in biomass compared to more traditional processes.

“Converting biomass into the building blocks of chemistry is possible. The hard part is doing it consistently, at commercial scale, and with compelling economics,” says Renmatix in a statement on its website. “Unless the process can be accelerated and expanded beyond the lab, the benefits of such technology cannot be effectively realized. At Renmatix, we have scaled the Plantrose™ Process from the laboratory to pilot, and on into demonstration scale, using low-cost, locally available, natural and renewable feedstocks.”

If Renmatix succeeds in commercializing its technology, it could help reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuels and revolutionize the alternative energy market. At present, that market is wide open, with cellulosic fuel production falling far short of Congress quotas for its consumption.

With its fuel-conversion process now potentially facilitated, cellulosic biomass is becoming an attractive option. Widely found and seldom used, wood chips, grass, and agricultural waste are clean and economical fuel sources.

Currently, Renmatix operates a pilot plant in Kennesaw, Georgia, and plans to open a new research and development center in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania on Tuesday. However, soon, its production could expand, with interest buzzing from biotechnological company Amyris and sustainable product innovator DuPont.

Yet despite the optimism, critics are quick to caution that the future of the Plantrose™ Process is far from certain.
“I’m quite confident that they will face some challenges moving from a lab success to a tens-of-millions-of-gallons commercial refinery,” said Thomas L. Richard, professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Penn State. But he did not dismiss the project.

“It’s not unimaginable that it would work.”

And at Renmatix, optimism is the theme.

“The dialogue has now shifted,” the company’s website says. “It’s no longer a question of ‘can we do it’? At Renmatix, our singular mission is perfecting the efficient conversion of cellulosic biomass and supplying this solution to the world.”

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Glycyrrhiza_glabra_(Pile_of_Spanish_wood_chips).jpg

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