Sud-Chemie breaks ground on German wheat straw-to-ethanol plant

By Kris Bevill | July 27, 2011

German-based international specialty chemicals company Süd-Chemie AG held a groundbreaking July 26 for a 1,000 ton-per-year, demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Straubing, located in the Lower Bavaria region. The plant, which is expected begin production by the end of the year, will convert wheat straw collected from area farmers to ethanol using Süd-Chemie’s trademarked sunliquid process. The company said the demonstration plant will be the largest ag waste-to-ethanol plant in Germany when complete.

The sunliquid process is a biotechnological process that utilizes specially developed enzymes to dissolve the cellulose and hemicelluloses into sugar monomers in high yields, said Yvonne Söltl, strategic marketing and communications manager for Süd-Chemie’s corporate research and development department. The process then uses specialized yeasts developed by Süd-Chemie to simultaneously convert the C5 and C6 sugars to ethanol in a “one-pot reaction,” which increases ethanol yields by up to 50 percent. Lignin produced from the process will be used to provide power for the facility. “In addition, a new and proprietary downstream processing technology developed by Süd-Chemie saves up to 50 percent energy during ethanol separation compared to standard distillation,” Söltl said. “Hence, the sunliquid process is almost energy neutral, resulting in cellulosic ethanol with CO2 emission savings of 95 percent.”

The sunliquid process has been tested at the company’s pilot plant for two years. The demonstration project will further prove the efficiency improvement capabilities and cost-effectiveness of the process, the company stated.

About €16 million ($22 million) has been invested in the project, with an additional €12 million invested in accompanying research. Government financial support has been minimal. The Bavarian state government and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research have each provided approximately €5 million for research efforts, according to Süd-Chemie. The company declined to specifically peg its production cost per gallon of cellulosic ethanol,

Söltl said the company plans to begin operating its first 50,000-ton-per-year commercial-scale ethanol plant by 2014. As with other first-of-a-kind cellulosic ethanol plants, the cost to build the first facility will be substantial and Söltl said political support will be vital to creating a secure environment for investors. At the ground-breaking ceremony, German Federal Minister of Education and Research, Annette Schavan, indicated that the German government is committed to assisting in the build-out of cellulosic ethanol production capacity. “Stepping up the replacement of scarce crude oil stocks with renewable raw materials is a stated aim of the national research strategy Bioeconomy 2030,” she said. “This is why we are funding the development of biorefineries that can produce valuable chemical raw materials or biofuel from agricultural waste products and by-products such as straw.”

Schavan said €2.4 billion will be available over the next six years for bioeconomy research strategy projects, which could include the sustainable production and conversion of biomass to food, health, fiber and industrial products and energy.