Thesis Chemistry to build Iowa biorefinery using stover lignin

By Bryan Sims | November 28, 2011

Working closely with the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Nevada Economic Development Council, Mentor, Iowa-based Thesis Chemistry has selected a 40-acre site within the West Industrial Park of Nevada, Iowa, for a proposed biorefinery center that will produce a range of biobased chemicals derived from corn stover lignin sourced as a byproduct of cellulosic ethanol production in the state.

Subject to financial and economic incentives, planned new buildings within the industrial park complex include an initial biorefinery, a corporate headquarters office building and a chemical research and development laboratory. In addition, Thesis Chemistry also plans to establish a pilot manufacturing facility in conjunction with the Biomass Energy Conversion (BECON) research center, also located in the West Industrial Park.

According to Chris Forslund, CEO of Thesis Chemistry, product development and future commercialization involves four phases. The first will be the production of the oxoaromatic compound vanillin, which can be used as a food and flavoring agent. The second will be cresols, which can be used as disinfectants or deodorizers. The third will be the production of phenols, which have a myriad of industrial uses such as wood and plastics processing. And the fourth will be the production of butanes and other fuel additives. Thesis Chemistry teamed with De Pere, Wis.-based Smet Construction Services in June to design and construct its first biorefinery, which is anticipated to be in production by early 2014, Forslund said.  

While the state doesn’t currently have a single commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility producing ethanol from corn stover at the moment, Forslund said he foresees his company sourcing enough lignin within the state to satisfy the input requirements to feed its new biorefinery to produce the suite of biochemicals.

“Right now, anyone generating lignin is basically targeting to sell it as a boiler fuel,” Forslund said. “Even after all four phases of our biorefinery are up and running, there’s still going to be a certain amount of residue lignin that we could either use as an internal energy source or we could turn around and sell it.”

Commercial production output of Thesis’ first biobased chemical, vanillin, is anticipated to be between 3,500 and 4,000 tons per year, according to Forslund, but, he said, “When you look at global markets for the three markets, it’s not like we’re going to be coming in and absolutely inundating the market,” he said, adding that the company has already identified key customers within North America to supply its green chemicals. “We’re going after a small portion of a niche market.”

Founded in 2005, Thesis Chemistry also has a research and development center located in Cambridge, Ontario.