"I enjoy the responsibility to really innovate - bringing new inventions to the market and by doing this actually making a difference."
Clariant is a globally leading specialties chemicals company based in Muttenz, Switzerland. Its Group Biotechnology develops biobased products and processes for the production of biochemicals and biofuels. Dr. Markus Rarbach is leading the Business Project Biofuels & Derivatives, which is focused on the conversion of lignocellulosic material, such as agricultural residues, into biofuels and chemical building blocks. The sunliquid technology has been developed since 2006 and has now reached commercial maturity. Bio-Based World News was able to gain more of an insight into the challenges facing the industry as well as some of the solutions Clariant have been working on.
Emily O'Dowd (EOD): What has led you to this role?
Markus Rarbach (MR): Industrial biotechnology has always fascinated me, ever since my studies. Using Mother Nature’s tools to make new products with improved performance and/or a better environmental footprint is something that has always triggered my curiosity. Then, during my PhD, I was fortunate enough to work with Nobel Laureate Dr. Manfred Eigen, which I found very inspiring, especially working in a multi-discipline team with different backgrounds and trainings. I then joined DIREVO Biotech AG as Department Head of Screening and Automation to build on my work as a post doctorate, and later became Vice President Operations of DIREVO. In November 2006 I was offered a new and very interesting opportunity, back than at Süd-Chemie (which was acquired by Clariant ( @clariant ) in 2011). I first started as Head of Biocatalysis and with my team contributed to the development of the sunliquid technology for the production of cellulosic ethanol from agricultural residues such as wheat straw, corn stover or sugarcane bagasse. The technology developed fast and became more and more mature. In 2012 we opened our pre-commercial plant in Straubing, Germany. Today, we are focused on the commercialization process. I am now Head of the so called Business Project Biofuels & Derivatives, responsible for commercialisation of the technology.
EOD: What do you enjoy most about your role?
MR: The responsibility to really innovate - bringing new inventions to the market and by doing this actually making a difference. Cellulosic ethanol is one of the only biofuels that is truly sustainable by saving about 100 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, it is based on agricultural residues, a feedstock source that has huge untapped potential.
EOD: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in the industry?
MR:Technological challenges can be tricky, but with the right team and mind-set, in the end, there is a solution. However, there are challenges that we, as a technology provider and innovator, only have limited influence in overcoming, and one of the biggest is to actually get your invention into the market. In Europe we have been facing a huge gap between our research and the market. This was recognized in several studies and was named the “Valley of Death”. This starts, when research is basically at its end but you still have to prove commercial performance. And bridging this “valley” is often associated with a technical and substantial financial risk. There is a real need for support in this area. However, new initiatives are helping to address this issue; for example the Biobased Industries Public Private Partnership. Important funding schemes of demonstration and flagship activities have been started here, supported by the biobased industries. The Biobased Industries Consortium is the Private partner here and we have been a founding partner. We are now partners in several demonstration and flagship projects that will help us commercialize our sunliquid technology and thus will help established an advanced bioeconomy in Europe.
EOD: What single change would help develop the bio-based/sustainable industry further?
MR: I think legislation is the key here. A clear and reliable legislative framework will create an attractive environment for investors. We have seen in the biofuels sector how much harm can be done by unclear and changing legislation. We need stable conditions to be able to build a business case, for example binding mandates for biobased products.
EOD: How has the environment changed in the past years?
MR: When we started the development of our sunliquid process, everything was about the technology features. The whole industry was mainly interested in how to best access the sugars and
then convert them into ethanol. Recent years have seen a lot of progress both on the biotechnology as well as on the process development side of cellulosic ethanol technology. Now, everything is about going big in commercialization of the technology. Clariant’s sunliquid technology achieves this performance through a thorough and entirely integrated process design and innovative technology features offering a one-stop shop solution flexible to be used to convert different feedstock and adopt to various plant concepts, combining high process yields with low OPEX and CAPEX. Performance runs in our pre-commercial plant with wheat straw, corn stover and sugarcane bagasse have shown excellent results and validated the technology.
EOD: What is the next step for sunliquid, after successful commercialization of cellulosic ethanol?
MR: The application of the sunliquid technology is not limited to the transport sector. It offers access to a platform for conversion of agricultural residues into a range of chemicals for different industries and applications. For example, Clariant finished a technology integration package with its joint-venture company Scientific Design to convert cellulosic ethanol into cellulose derived chemicals such as bio-ethylene, ethylene oxide, bio-MEG and other biobased products. Furthermore, sunliquid offers access to low cost cellulosic sugars for further conversion – driving forward the advanced bioeconomy by providing access to second generation sugars for all kind of applications.
EOD: What other products can result from your process?
MR: Second generation sugars can be used for fermentation and thus be the basis for a wide variety of organic chemicals and building blocks. The resulting products can be organic acids, alcohols or fatty acids, for example or more specialized substances like enzymes. We have tested different fermentation processes with our sugars and work with different partners on the integration of our sunliquid process with their downstream fermentation. For example Global Bioenergies recently announced, that their fermentation process to biobased isobutene works at industrial pilot scale using sunliquid second generation sugars from wheat straw. In addition, the sunliquid process yields two valuable side products. First, lignin, which is currently used for burning, can also be turned into higher value products. Second, the vinasse resulting from fermentation can be brought back to the field as a fertilizer thanks to its good fertilizer properties.
Our last five minutes with... Samy Ponnusamy, Green Chemist at Millipore Sigma
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