Mascoma acquires pre-treatment technology

By Kris Bevill | August 27, 2010
Posted Sept. 3, 3010

Lebanon, N.H.-based Mascoma Corp. announced Sept. 1 that it has acquired Canada's SunOpta BioProcess Inc., a division of SunOpta Inc., for $51 million. SunOpta BioProcess Inc. will now operate as a subsidiary of Mascoma under the name Mascoma Canada.

Mascoma has spent the past five years developing its consolidated bioprocessing (CBP) technology, which is a hydrolysis and fermentation process that utilizes genetically modified microorganisms to convert cellulosic fibers to sugar and produce alcohol in one step, without the addition of enzymes. SunOpta's technology is a first-step pretreatment process which exposes the cellulosic fibers of various materials, including woody biomass, switchgrass or agricultural waste, for further conversion to biofuels. The combination of CBP and SunOpta's technology should allow Mascoma to complete the entire cellulose-to-ethanol process more efficiently and economically, according to Mascoma CEO Bill Brady.

"We have put together a larger, more powerful company with comprehensive, end-to-end capabilities which are well proven," he said. "Our intention is to get to market faster and [reduce] the cost curve faster because of this combination. There are only a few players in the pretreatment technology business. What we like about SunOpta is that is a steam explosion technology, so it uses no harsh chemicals, no acids and has a great environmental footprint."

Included with Mascoma's purchase of SunOpta's technology are SunOpta's Canadian laboratory, offices and pilot plant. Brady said Mascoma has no plans to close any of those facilities and he expects Mascoma will have an increased presence in Canada because of the acquisition. Mascoma has previously been involved in development projects in Canada and is also active in the South American market. SunOpta has development partners in China and India, and announced earlier this year that it had secured a major fiber pretreatment technology supply contract with a new energy company in China. Mascoma is also moving ahead with its first proposed commercial scale facility in Kinross, Mich., which is expected to undergo construction in mid-2011 and should begin producing cellulosic ethanol in 2013. The 20 to 40 MMgy plant will be operated by Mascoma's project partner, Michigan-based timber company J.M. Longyear.

Immediate actions taken after the acquisition include research to determine how best to modify SunOpta's pretreatment method so that Mascoma's microorganisms can effectively attack the cellulosic to produce high yields of ethanol. Research is being conducted at Mascoma's Rome, N.Y., demonstration facility and the company is currently conducting involved, extended production runs to validate the production process, according to Brady.

Brady said he anticipates the coming decade to be a very active build-out time for cellulosic ethanol plants as producers scale-up to meet the expanding renewable fuels standard. With the acquisition of SunOpta, Mascoma is positioning itself to be one of the top technology licensors in the industry. "There are a lot of very good technology companies in the biofuels sector but very few of them are addressing the most important issue, which is unlocking the cellulose in wood, grasses or agricultural waste in a low cost, sustainable way," he said. "It's a very difficult thing, but that is what has to happen to enable the whole industry. There are many technologies focused on what happens after that step, but Mascoma is focused on that fundamental issue."